The Bowers & Wilkins Audio System for the Volvo XC90

This is our first car stereo review.

Long time readers of Audiophilia know of our love for well setup, two channel stereo, analogue kit, tube sound, quality digital and great solid state. Headphones and mobile audio? Well, that's been a recent acceptance. And its getting better and better. Car audio? Not 'til now. 

Audio snobbishness? Maybe, but definitely grounded in an honest search for the very best sound. Headphones have an aural perception problem. With car audio, the problems begin with the cabin and end with road noise.

Recently, my brother asked me along for a test drive of the 2016 Volvo XC90 SUV. I'm a BMW fanboy and definitely not an SUV guy, but I'd heard good things about the total revamp of the popular SUV. The dealership here in Victoria, BC was excellent as was the young fella charged with taking us for a spin. I was impressed with the salesman's knowledge and passion, and very impressed by the incredible technology the vehicle offers. It is also very comfortable with enough light wood trim to transport you from your local IKEA to the Gulf of Bothnia. 

Our test vehicle had the $3500 add on Bowers & Wilkins sound system, designed and engineered specifically for the Volvo cabin. With its 'Tweeter on Top' design (see top photo) and the B&W logo emblazoned in aluminum, it looked very impressive. 

I was hoping to have a good listen, but the test drive was brief. It's not like I have not heard the best in car audio. I have listened at length to the Porsche/Burmester system, the BMW/B&O setup and a quick check of the Bentley/Naim system. I see what you did there. The very best in high end audio is getting into the car segment. Have they been successful?

Each of the systems I've mentioned, including the Volvo B&W, but not including the dreadful 'upgraded' Harman Kardon system in the BMW, are a lot better than your father's AM radio in his Chevy.

The Volvo interior makes the listening experience very pleasurable. Stationary, and with your eyes closed, you could be in a lovely living room surrounded by SONOS kit. 

Stationary, (and not going anywhere), with a good Pinot Noir, and the Volvo cabin is a lovely place to listen.

Stationary, (and not going anywhere), with a good Pinot Noir, and the Volvo cabin is a lovely place to listen.

The system is bespoke not just for the brand, but for the model. In fact, the subwoofer is built into the subframe. The other 18 drivers (Nautilus tweeters, kevlar mids and woofers) have been placed via many hours of electronic and aural engineering. The heart is a 1400 watt, Class D amplifier that drives the system to very loud levels. Way past head banging and all you'll ever need.  

Like a good centre channel, the front facing tweeter looks expensive and impressive and leads the musical pack. All the other drivers disappear behind silver or black metal grilles. Only a slight yellow hue of Kevlar pokes out. Through the equalizer (our choice, 'Dynamic') and musical modes (Individual Stage, Studio, and the choice of your reviewer, the Gothenburg Concert Hall), you can tune the speakers to your musical requirements (changing 'Intensity' or 'Envelopment' by sliders on the tablet-like screen). Look, you'll have to suspend musical belief no matter how good the sound, especially if you want a dead centre view of the musical event with perfect stereo. If you can do that, and I could, you'll be in for musical treats as you wait in the car or drive. 

Kevlar midrange peek a boo

Kevlar midrange peek a boo

Sources are Bluetooth, CD, terrestrial radio, satellite radio, AUX and USB. I've never heard phone calls sound so good in a vehicle. Voices had depth. I write that without a hint of a smile. 

As for sound? I was very impressed when stationary, slightly less when moving. Moving, you'll have a very clear soundstage but without much directional specificity. Sure, the front facing tweeter position eliminates lots of reflections from the large windshield, and even though the XC90 is a quiet space when driving, keen ears will still pick up some road roar from the 21" Pirellis. Let's not pick nits, though. For car stereos, you won't get much better than this B&W. Sound quality goes up when the road noise (car insulation) goes down. I'd imagine the Bentley is tops for this. 

Cars are for driving, so you'll buy the stereo as an add on for this particular vehicle as it sounds when moving. As such, it's definitely worth the $3500 upgrade. 

But when the car is stationary, the B&W offers real refinement and real power. Gentle souls like Shelby Lynne (Just a Little Lovin') was splendid and the incredible recording transported me back to my lifestyle SONOS system on the main floor of my house. Of course, not the quality of great two channel in my dedicated music room, but easily good enough for long trips or the school run. 

What really amazed me was the Dudamel/LA Phil/DGG Firebird. I was shocked at just how much musical information came through from much of Stravinsky's subtle orchestrations. And then, pow! King Kastchei was dancing like a demon with his henchmen and the subwoofer made our acquaintance. Very, very impressive. And with the 1400 watts of power, we gave up before the King. 

If you're looking for an SUV, the new Volvo is pretty special. If you get one, go ahead and choose the B&W upgrade. You wont be disappointed.