Volvo is known around the world as a pioneer in automotive safety, and it recently emerged as one of the most design-focused brands in the industry. What many people are surprised to learn is that the Swedish company is also a leader in the field of car audio.
For example, did you know the sleek-looking C70 coupe was the first car to offer a factory-fitted surround sound system when it debuted in 1997? More recently, Volvo teamed up with England-based Bowers & Wilkins to design an audio system so advanced it’s capable of streaming a live performance by the National Orchestra of Sweden. Digital Trends went behind the scenes in the company’s underground sound lab to find out what went into developing the system.
Don’t be fooled by marketing gimmicks; developing a world-class audio system is more complicated than simply jamming thousands of watts and a dozen speakers into a car. As part of its quest to bring human-centric tech to the market, Volvo starts laying the system’s foundations early in a car’s development process.
“With the new scalable product architecture (SPA), we had the possibility to really design the whole vehicle platform from the ground up with audio in mind,” Henrik Svensson, Volvo’s director of audio and displays, told us while walking through the sound lab.
That’s why there is a fresh air subwoofer integrated directly into the 90-series cars’ structure – clearly, it wasn’t added there as an afterthought. Air is fed to the subwoofer through an opening in the rear wheel well, which provides extremely low frequencies and a richer sound. The setup essentially turns the entire cabin into a giant subwoofer.
A car is a loud, vibrating metal shell with rubber and plastic parts. Sound engineers need to take intrusions such as road noise and wind noise into account. They consequently spend hours driving test mules in different conditions to ensure they obtain the cleanest possible sound at all times.
Fredrick Lyckman, Volvo’s in-house tuning expert, explained members of his team take breaks inside a special sound room that’s buried deep inside the company’s research and development department. The room is set up with a high-end stereo that’s perfectly tuned to play the pure, unmodified sound they’re looking to dial into the cabin.
“We don’t want to change the music in any way, shape, or form. The best loudspeaker isn’t the one that gives you the most but the one that loses the least,” said Andy Kerr, senior product manager for Bowers & Wilkins. “Of course, if the recording is poor the loudspeakers aren’t going to change that, they’re going to relay it as-is,” he added.
Volvo and Bowers & Wilkins both put a big emphasis on integrating the components of the sound system into the car as elegantly as possible.
One of the most important parts of the design process is ensuring the speakers are all in the right place, and oriented correctly. Volvo designed the 90-series cars’ cabin jointly with Bowers & Wilkins to make sure this step isn’t overlooked.
The mid-range speakers are positioned high up in the doors, as close as possible to the passengers’ ears. And, the tweeter is mounted right on top of the dashboard, where it points towards the back of the cabin. If it was integrated into the dashboard, it would inevitably point upwards and some of the sound would bounce off the windshield before reaching the passengers. The tweeter-on-top setup is hallmark of Bowers & Wilkins sound systems, and it’s also found in a few McLaren models like the 570S.
Developing a car audio system presents unique challenges, but it has its fair share of advantages, too.
“When a customer gets a loudspeaker home they can sit wherever they want. In a car, by contrast, we have complete control over the location. We completely understand the distance relationship between the drive unit and the listener’s ear,” pointed out Kerr.
Pleasant to the ears and the eyes
The partnership has created one of the very best factory sound systems on the market – and one of the best-looking ones, too. Volvo and Bowers & Wilkins both put a big emphasis on design, and on integrating the components of the sound system into a car as elegantly as possible. The see-through aluminum speaker grilles ensure the sound is clear, but they also let listeners admire the distinctive yellow, Kevlar-coned speakers installed in the doors.
Volvo is so confident in its ability to deliver world-class sound that it added a built-in symphony mode accessible via the dash-mounted touch screen. Engineers painstakingly made over 800 measurements in the Gothenburg concert hall to perfectly reproduce its soundscape in the 90-series cars. It’s like stuffing an orchestra directly into the dashboard.
In the S90, the sound of a performance by the National Orchestra of Sweden permeates the cabin just like it does in the concert hall; if you turn the volume up and close your eyes it sounds like you’re sitting 15 yards away from the conductor, except the seat you’re in is heated, leather-upholstered, and much more comfortable. The sonorous sound of the string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments is energized and precise.
Don’t worry if you can’t name a Russian composer without consulting Wikipedia; Volvo’s Bowers & Wilkins sound system delivers a stunning listening experience regardless of whether it’s playing Dr. Dre, Rage Against the Machine, Avicii, or Beethoven.