Defender of the Faith and run around Soo
James is a very lucky man! Living the bachelor dream while pursuing a musical passion which extends to a massive array of high-end speakers in his living room and of course, as referenced in the title, his workaday Land Rover Defender and FIAT PANDA.
James is a Setting out Engineer – Anyone? You at the back? No? Well, he is the man who sets out the site of a new building armed with some sticks and a hammer (I think he uses some other tools too!). He is responsible for the exact positioning and layout of a new build – so, a bit like a surveyor but with practical skills. Right, better get on with the piece before I insult anyone else.
FOUR MASTER, Enigma in Ashford, Kent, provided me with James’ contact details having excitedly told me about two vehicles that had received some major audio love! After a run down of the work they had carried out I was intrigued and determined to see these two chalk and cheese vehicles with my own eyes!
I finally met James in February 2016 in deepest darkest Kent, a county I know nothing about at all. I discovered it is a long way from my home in Oxfordshire and that despite all of my technology telling me it was just two and a half hours drive away, it took over four hours each way. The only other thing I know is that they used to grow a lot of hops there which is an ingredient I enjoy via the medium of beer – I was therefore, a little disappointed to find that the only beer in the hotel bar came from Cornwall!
Laurence (photographer du jour) and I pulled up at James’ at around 9:30 a.m. and I immediately spied a rather shabby Defender and an old blue panda in his yard. I leapt out of my car to say hello, whilst trying not to let my disappointment show and quickly found out that these were not the vehicles we had come to see! Those vehicles were both garaged behind some giant barn doors. After a brief introductory chat, Laurence marched off to look for suitable backdrops for the photography and I ploughed straight in with the direct and unnerving questions in true journalistic style. Actually, there was absolutely no need for that as James was clearly a really nice guy and we immediately seemed to get on.
James’ obsession for music came from his father who played loud rock music in the family home. This included The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Tina Turner but he also has fairly eclectic tastes, which have been passed on and James admits to enjoying orchestral music amongst many other styles and genres as the mood takes him. Once the logistics had been sorted out, James wheeled out his magnificent Defender. This is heavily “improved” and James has carried out most of the styling modifications, apart from the retina-scorching LED lights, himself. I was excited to look inside, as the Defender is, even by James’ admission, basically a tractor. All the panels are single skinned and so there is no place at all for speakers and amplifiers and subwoofers. James told me that all panels including the roof had been heavily treated, which not only set the stage for the audio system but also added much-needed thermal insulation. The vehicle is used mainly as his onsite office and a few “trick” modifications have been integrated to help with this. A foldout desk is mounted on top of the centre console that doubles as a subwoofer enclosure for instance and a clamp that holds his laptop. But I was looking for speakers and found them. A three-way set of Hertz Mille series 2’s mounted in seemingly bizarre “this will never work” locations!
As there is literally nowhere to fit a three-way speaker system to a stock Defender so, Andy from Enigma had to wield tools and MDF in order to create some. The woofers are mounted in under seat locations on MDF rings and point toward the front of the vehicle. It was felt that this would work, as bass frequencies are less directional than mid and high frequencies. Meanwhile, the mid-range speakers accommodate the factory positions under the dashboard pointing at the occupant’s knees (why, oh why, oh why!). Fortunately, the tweeters sit nicely on the top of the dashboard ensuring some music actually arrives un-reflected, to the ears!
The centre console ported, subwoofer enclosure houses a Hertz High-Energy HX 250D. This is covered with durable carpet and looks pretty much like it is meant to be there.
An Audison Voce AV-5.1K, five-channel amplifier, powers the speakers and subwoofer. Mounted against the lined rear wall, this magnificent beast features class A, class AB and class D channels of amplification and in this instance are running in a “passive active” configuration. For those of you who do not know your way around these strange labels, the class of an amplifier relates to the specific configuration of the amplifying components within. They all do the same job but to different levels of fidelity and with differing efficiency levels. The term “passive active” relates to the configuration of 2-pairs of channels and how they run three pairs of speakers. In this case, the tweeters and mid range speakers are run from the two Class A channels via high quality passive crossovers while the woofers are driven by the AB channels. The hefty 1000 Watt D-class channel powers the subwoofer.
The front-end of the system is provided by Alpine and their double din INE-W987D unit. Analogue line outputs carry the signal directly to the AV 5.1K amplifier and the EQ is kept as flat as possible. James seems to think this is the best thing to do. I am a little less certain as you cannot ignore the effect of the environment within the car and sometimes some remedial tweaking is required to overcome acoustical anomalies within the vehicle. The Alpine head unit should provide everything required to do a good job here although, I feel an Audison bit product could bring even greater benefits to the party.
During audition, I was encouraged to sit in the passenger seat. This is somewhat unusual for me and I initially found myself shifting about uneasily as I searched for a sweet spot. The system is however, set up for two seat listening and the image was rock solid wherever I put my head. Considering the crazy speaker positions, the soundstage was astonishingly accurate – testament to the performance of the Mille speakers and the setting up skills of installer Andy, at Enigma. By this time, Matt, the proprietor at Enigma, has joined us. He came along to fill in a few technical details about the install, eat all the biscuits and generally get in the way! (only kidding Matt, always lovely to see you) He was very keen to point out the lengths Andy had gone to in order to accommodate the double din head unit. This requires some switches to be moved out of the way and so a dash top switch panel was fabricated which looks very neat.
Matt recommended a track by Yello. This was a bit of a blast from the past for me as “The Race” is a track that was regularly heard pumping out of cars throughout the nineties. A car roars across the sound stage from left to right at the beginning, followed by a percussive intro that sounds monstrous! I was trying to take notes and my pen was literally jumping off the page! More car noise and some brass stabs run into the introductory “lyric” and then a funky guitar riff kicks in at around 54 seconds. Some incongruous slide guitar turns up slightly later – the whole track is quite mad really but it offered promise of prominent mid-bass, which I really like.
Next up came a choice from James - “Vogue” from Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. High strings and a keyboard figure which I am certain is stolen from the Genesis track “Supper’s ready” blend perfectly under a deep bass line and some finger clicks (or silicon equivalent). Drum entries can reveal a lot about a system. In many systems, once a track gets going, the sound and in particular the position of the instruments can shift. No such problems here as everything remains in its own luxurious space as Madge orders us all to “Strike a pose”. I hadn't previously noticed that the word “Strike” is panned hard left but by the time we get to “pose” she is over on the right! The production by Shep Pettibone is strictly “disco” so not a lot of subtlety but a really good work out for this system. We listened to a lot of tracks and I concluded that the performance was much better on modern electronic music than it was on the more laid back rock tunes that I threw at it. This is clearly music James enjoys driving to and is where the system is an absolute winner. For my tastes, a few nudges of the subwoofer level control in the minus direction were required but as many will know, I drive without a subwoofer in my own car. This began as an experiment but is a strategy I have kept to. I can clearly understand those who get a kick from heavy bass particularly when driving a tractor at speed around country roads!
So, on to “run around Soo”. Soo was the sensible character in the Sooty and Sweep show and was a Panda and so is James’ run around (humour abounds!) although, his is four-wheel drive and I expect a real blast to drive in his rural surroundings. James tells me that fitted with winter tyres it performs better in the snow than the Defender! The install in this car was carried out some months after the Defender. James was perfectly happy with the performance of the Mille’s in that and so decided to stick with the same for this new project. However, in the intervening months, Hertz had released the Mille Legends, a considerable upgrade to the series 2’s. James also has slight concerns regarding the performance of the 10” High Energy subwoofer in its compact albeit ported enclosure. He feels that despite providing tight and punchy bass, it lacks a bit of warmth and presence. I feel that perhaps more could be extracted from the sub with the addition of a bit of processing but that is a matter for the experts! Due to these concerns however, James plumped for a Morel subwoofer for the FIAT. This is once again, installed in a custom ported box. Morel is famous for its relaxed sound and I was interested to hear how it would blend in with the Mille Legends.
The three-way Mille Legends are mounted in the front door (ML1800) and a pair of brilliantly crafted fibreglass A-pillar builds (ML 700 and Tweeters). As James wanted to increase the mid bass in this vehicle, he also had a pair of ML 1650’s fitted into the rear doors. A Hertz HDP 4 (mid-range, tweeters and rear woofers) and HDP 5 (front woofers and subwoofer) drive this impressive array of speakers. The amplifiers are mounted under the front passenger seat while the crossovers are situated under the drivers seat. Once more the head unit of choice is an Alpine INE-W987D. Getting this to fit the Panda was even more of a challenge than fitting it into the Defender. Not only did a switch box have to be manufactured to move the switches away from the lower centre console area but; a new surround piece had to be fabricated. This perfectly matches the A-pillar builds and so the result looks decidedly factory - Not a FIAT factory however! – Andy has really excelled with the fabrication of this installation and everything is well thought through. The switch box on the top of the dash is given extra depth to make it look good, and it does!
Now, this installation looks like it took a good deal of work and money to achieve. James looked particularly cheerful at this suggestion and told me that the car was his birthday present to himself and he felt he was worth it! Jumping into the driver’s seat, I put on a favourite Gregory Porter track, “No Love Dying”. This played so well that I think even James was a little taken aback. He picked out the sax solo for particular mention. Sound stage was spot on and the Morel subwoofer was invisible to my ears as it blended in perfectly with the low bass of the Mille’s. One slight negative for me was that the vocal sounded just a little honky and further testing suggested that for me the 3” mid was a little too prominent. This is easily fixed however so no big deal at all! Next up was Sohn’s “The Wheel”. This is a good track for checking bass articulation or the ability of the system to accurately separate very low notes. In this car it passed the test with flying colours. Furthermore, the percussive effects including what sounds like bones being played were crystal clear. The track breaks down at around 2 mins and a silicon guitar sound keeps things together while the artist has more fun with some exquisite percussion as well as going crazy with an auto-panned phase effect in the background which almost turned my ears inside out. The detail was scary!
We tried a number of other things and found that the mid-bass and bass were a little less violent than with the Defender. This is probably down to set up more than anything else and also it is quite possible that once driving, the Defender sounds quite different due to the sound of its enormous engine. We finished up with “The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson. Once again, someone had a lot of fun with the pan control and the intro has you looking left and right as if watching a tennis match. The width and punch are astonishing and the brass literally slaps you in the face in places where as I find it rather subdued on many other systems. Once again the detail was particularly note-worthy with the heavily filtered “jaws harp” guitar very prominent. At around 3m49s you can clearly hear a “clang’ which accompanies every snare beat. It is actually there all the way through but was most apparent at this point where a lot of the backing track is stripped away for a while.
Everything we threw at this system sounded clear and detailed and very dynamic, even the burst of Nessun Dorma (Jose Carreras) threw up detail that is missed on many systems.
All in all, this was a fantastic day out for me and I think James and Matt and Laurence enjoyed spending time listening and talking and generally celebrating the exceptional performance of both of these systems.
A huge thank you goes to Matt and James for their time and expertise, not to mention the tea, biscuits (did I mention Matt ate most of these?) and sandwiches!
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