The world’s best car stereo? Rolls-Royce Bespoke Audio tested
We explore Rolls-Royce’s Bespoke Audio system and test its claims of studio-quality in-car sound
Rolls-Royce can rightly claim to make some of the finest cars in the world – models that offer the very best comfort and quality you can find on four wheels – and its cars also offer near silence for their occupants. But what if you want that silence broken by your favourite sounds, from rock to rap, or Strauss to Stormzy. Surely the best car in the world has to have the best stereo system, too?
Auto Express decided to put that to the test with our own editor-in-chief – a former editor of What Hi-Fi – plus the help of a very special expert. And what better car to test an audio system in than the Rolls-Royce Phantom – all £446,000-worth in the commission (Rolls-Royce cars are commissioned, not ordered) we had.
We’ve experienced some great and not-so-great in-car audio over the years. Highlights include the Naim system in the latest Bentleys, plus Bowers and Wilkins stereos in BMWs, McLarens and Volvos, Mark Levinson systems in Lexuses, and even the B&O Play set-up in the Ford Fiesta.
In true Rolls-Royce fashion, it has done things differently, though. Rather than reach for an audio specialist to develop the sound system in the Phantom (and there are plenty of high-end British firms who’d help out) it has taken on the development itself. It’s a unique approach – has it worked?
The man heading up the Bespoke Audio programme is Dave Monks, Vehicle Project Leader at Rolls-Royce, who explains the background to creating one of the world’s best sound systems in one of the world’s best cars.
“The brief was to put a studio in a car,” Monks says. “It’s a subtle difference to the normal approach, which is to put an awesome hi-fi in a car. The two methods may sound the same, but one is about creating the environment to produce a sound in. That’s what sets our system apart from just pushing more power, more speakers, more whatever into a box.”
Our initial assessment is that Monks and his team have worked wonders – you’d think you were in a large room with speakers some way away from you rather than just inches from your ears. “You can’t just add that to a car,” says Monks. “You need to do it from day one. Basically, the whole chassis is designed around that concept.”
This comes down to the choice of materials, like aluminium, which has a different acoustic response to steel. And it can be used to tune the acoustics of the car – or the studio, as Monks thinks of it. “Where you see an extrusion in our body section, which might look like a box section, it’s probably got some complex honeycomb inside, or a matrix of rectangular channels. We can use those internal structures to reduce resonance and booming, and facilitate that isolation of the external world,” he says.
Cars are notoriously challenging places to tune audio systems, not only because of outside noises, but also the shapes and materials used in the car – especially the windows. “Glass is a problem,” admits Monks. “It reflects sound. It’s particularly transparent to sound.
“We’ve developed a six-millimetre-thick double glazing. If you roll the window down a few inches and look in the gap, we have an extremely thick synthetic layer between two sheets of glass, entirely developed to reduce reflection. The glass is isolated like a damper on the soft layer in the middle, so the reflection is dulled.”
There are 18 speakers in the Phantom, each with its own amplification channel fed by a 1,300-watt amplifier. There are two subwoofers, seven mid-ranges and seven tweeters, plus a couple of ‘exciters’ in the headlining – these coneless speakers make the headliner resonate like a tweeter.
Subwoofers play a key role, producing a deep, powerful bass from drivers under the front seats – it has a crispness many other systems fail to achieve; in too many car stereos the bass is flabby and uncontrolled by comparison. “For a powerful subwoofer you want a large resonance chamber, but it has to be the right tube length,” says Monks. “The way we integrate that into the car is we use the sill sections.
“The sill is an aluminium extrusion with a honeycomb pattern inside. We pass the sound wave up and down these channels to the exact right two frequencies for optimum bass, which means we can generate a lot of bass with quite a low-power amplifier. You don’t need much power to drive a huge amount of bass in the car.”
So how does Rolls deal with the two different Phantoms? “When you get the Extended, it’s 200 millimetres longer in the back, which is just not the right additional length for the tuning of our subwoofer,” Monks tells us. “So we placed it inside one of the expanding foam parts that gets activated in the paint oven, so we can tune this cavity length to be perfect for the audio system. Obviously, there’s a unique tune between the Phantom and the Phantom Extended, but there’s no compromise. It’s just a retune.”
In spite of the temptation to make the inside of the Phantom totally silent, just the right amount of engine and other external noise is allowed in – even raindrops must be heard to prevent an unnatural feeling inside the car. All that has to be balanced when tuning the audio system. “The sound has to be obvious. ‘No, that’s raindrops you’re hearing, and not that my audio system making an unusual sound.’ That’s the kind of balance we get into,” says Monks.
Tuning took him and his team on a 5,000-mile trip around Europe to places his customers might take their Phantom, and the choice of music was critical. “We started off with probably 150 different tracks,” says Monks. “We covered the whole spectrum, really: electronic, studio music that you would expect to hear in a nightclub, all the way through to live rock music that you might expect to hear at Donington Park, looking up at the big stage.
“The idea is that we cover that spectrum and include everyone in it. If we’re able to successfully reproduce those two ends of the spectrum, and on top of that we’re doing a normal frequency response test, any frequencies or any sound energies we’re not actively listening to in our ear testing, is covered scientifically anyway.
“There are two particular songs that I use when I make my adjustments,” says Monks. “One is very, very heavy. There’s a Metallica track called Sad But True. It starts off with a huge amount of energy: drums, guitars, everything. The key thing is, I think it’s 19 seconds in, there’s three seconds of silence before the drums start again. I think Phantom is the only vehicle where you hear the silence. In every other car, you hear the engine running, you hear the road going by underneath you. In our car you don’t – in that moment of silence, it’s more like you’ve paused the system.
“I’ve seen Metallica live a lot of times, and I think that’s as close as you can get to the reproduction. When the silence is silence and, if you turn it up, the power from the bass is shaking your innards. But it’s directional, it’s crisp, it’s precise. That’s one track that I really like in a car.
“The second one, and I like this for a strange reason, is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The intro is kind of strange: there’s a sort of muffled sound of an AM radio being tuned from frequency to frequency. You can hear people talking, and then it retunes, and you hear the 12-string guitar intro. There’s an electrical-interference noise in the background, and there’s sort of a whining noise, like you would get from an AM radio with a motor running nearby.
“It runs for nearly 90 seconds into the track, and after about 30 seconds, even though I know it’s in the track, I start to think, ‘Am I picking up a whining noise somewhere?’ You start to worry about this interference. And then it stops when the next guitar comes in, and I know it’s okay.
“For me, the exciting bit is there are not many cars where you can hear the woman and the man talking, you hear the cough and the sniffle, you hear the radio retune, and then you hear the electrical interference. That was one of the tracks we used to optimise the precision of the system.”
Having more than one set of ears on the system was also vital, which led to the inclusion of two settings to choose from. “With the two modes, it essentially was music that you expect to hear from in front of you and a bit up from a stage, or music that you expect to hear from all around you, in a club, in some kind of much larger venue.
“That’s the two tunes that went in the car. There was no way we would ever settle on one; it was not an argument that could be won: which is better? We conceded that one setting was impossible and we opted for the two settings.”
One question that, in a delightfully mysterious Rolls-Royce way, Monks was unwilling to answer, was who supplied the hardware for the Bespoke system. Given the controller and screen are pure BMW iDrive, with the Spirit of Ecstasy etched on the centre of the scroll wheel, are BMW bits in there?
“We’re not restricted to BMW Group partners,” says Monks. “We have partners in the components, and those different components are built to our exact specifications – we’re spending the money where we want to spend it. We value magnesium-ceramic cones on mid-range speakers, but on a tweeter, it’s just a waste of money at that frequency. Ours are composite cones; better for less money. We took on a range of different partners to develop head units and amplifiers, and a speaker system that did what we wanted.”
And the cost? You’ll have to go through the process of commissioning your own Phantom to get an accurate price for the system, but we’d estimate it would add around £8,000, plus local taxes. According to Rolls, more than half of all Phantom owners will drive themselves for a decent proportion of their time with the car – which is another challenge for Monks and his team. So how did our audition of the system go in the front and the back of the car?
We heard an enormous array of music both on the move and while stationary, from quiet to very loud. We listened to everything from Monks’ own favourites to an uncompressed version of Fox on the Run by The Sweet, through classical tracks to more contemporary music like the impeccably produced Black and White by Michael Jackson, and more recent bass-heavy tracks like In Da Club by 50 Cent, plus Scream and Shout by will.i.am.
The result? The very best systems allow you to hear things in recordings you’ve never heard before, and the Phantom’s Bespoke set-up does exactly that. It produces an expansive sound stage that belies even the sizeable cabin, while the crisp yet deeply moving bass doesn’t dominate, allowing the mid-range to flourish and higher frequencies to sound delicate yet powerful.
So, does one of the best cars in the world have one of the best audio systems in the world? After our experience we’d have to say yes. Rolls-Royce customers are rightly demanding, and the Bespoke Audio system in the Phantom genuinely delivers on its promise of producing studio-quality sound in a car – which is a very rare feat indeed.
Ricky Wilde’s Roller Disco
If Rolls-Royce’s aim was to ‘integrate studio-quality audio into a motor car’, what better way to find out it has succeeded than to enlist the help of one of the UK’s greatest songwriters and producers, Ricky Wilde? Ricky invited us into his Hertfordshire studio to hear some carefully selected tracks, then we listened to the same choice in the Phantom. So, what did he think?
“The design was utterly beautiful, having the usual DAB tuner, plus Apple CarPlay giving you seamless control of your iPhone on the head unit screen – thankfully pretty much the norm in most cars these days. My iTunes all sounded stunning, as did (the not quite as good-sounding streaming-wise) Spotify. “I played Nina’s album Synthian, Tom Aspaul’s Black Country Disco, and L’Avenue’s new single, Kelly,” he said. “I know all of these tracks have been crafted to perfection, and they all sounded flawless in the Phantom, and as good as I’ve heard them anywhere.
“I always use my car stereo as a good reference for mixes I’m working on, and this was the real test for me,” he continued. “I was pleasantly surprised at the warm and deep bottom end (the subwoofer cleverly integrated into the chassis and hidden under the seat) mixed in with the tight and crisp, but certainly not harsh, top end. It belted out the tunes without a hint of distortion or compression when we cranked it up.
“I was hoping that being a Rolls, it would be premium quality, and it fully delivered,” he told us. “The rich sound fills the whole cockpit at the front, whilst sitting in the back gives you the feeling of being fully immersed and not in any way detached, still having full control of the functions from the armrest.
“With this system you certainly do get your money’s worth, but in all honesty, would I say the sound is any better than that of a new S-Class Merc or BMW? It does seem it – sitting in this half-a-million-quid motor you certainly experience every frequency filling your senses, and you really feel like Royalty!”
- ‘Runaway’ by Nina ft Lau - A track I wrote and produced with the Queen of Synthwave, from her latest album, ‘Synthian’.
- ‘Neon Medusa’ by The Midnight - A new track – gorgeous synths and vocals.
- ‘Patience’ by KSI, Yungblud, Polo G - Covers all the frequencies; beautifully recorded and mastered by the YouTube megastar.
- ‘Kelly’ by L’Avenue - This is beautifully recorded and mixed.
- ‘Machine’ by Frida Sundemo - From 2013, the clearest vocal you will ever hear.
- ‘The Best I Can’ by Nik Kershaw - Nik at his best from his latest album, ‘Oxymoron’.
- ‘Lovesick’ by Mura Masa - Quirky track with the fattest bottom end; minimalist and perfect production.
- ‘Bridged By A Lightwave’ by Deadmau5 ft Kiesza - The incredible mouse kills it again, this time with Kiesza adding the beautiful top line. Pure heaven.
- ‘Blinding Lights’ by The Weeknd - One of the best pop tracks of the last few years!
- ‘Deep Space Getaway’ by Grace Lightman - Swirling synths, Moroder beats, essential hearing.
- ‘Cambodia’ by Kim Wilde (remix) - A stunning remix by Paul Oakenfold of a track I recorded in the eighties with my sister Kim.
What's the best car stereo you've ever heard? Let us know in the comments...