Our search for bit-perfect audio takes us to the home of high-end car audio distributor, FOUR
When deciding which cars to put in our annual publication, we have generally developed a number of provisos. One of these over the last few issues has been “no demo cars”! The reason for this is that we want to present our readers with affordable upgrades that can be used as a benchmark when specifying their own systems. Some demo cars are given inordinate amounts of time and effort from expert installers on a “money no object” basis. This is not great for us in our effort to convince music-loving car owners to upgrade their own cars.
It was therefore somewhat reluctantly that I agreed to travel to Birmingham to visit a high-end car audio distributor FOUR Car Audio to give their classy full-HD Mini demonstrator a listen. I had previously had a quick listen to this car a few months back but it was unfinished at that time and sounded somewhat underwhelming with over-the-top bass and confused mid-range. This time, the vehicle that joins a now significant fleet of “real world” demonstration vehicles was fully complete and proudly presented.
Regular readers will know that we work closely with FOUR and its national network of specialist installers, FOUR MASTERS, and can often be found demonstrating great car audio under the same banner. I am always impressed with the breadth of their product portfolio and their constant search for better product mixes put together to solve the general issues of poor sound in cars. In this vehicle, FOUR wanted to demonstrate just how good a pure digital signal path from source to amplifier could sound in a car. This car was perfect for this project as traditionally, they sound really poor, even with the overblown and typically overpriced dealer upgrade by “Bowes and Awfulson” or whatever installed I’m afraid.
The audio had to be installed in a consumer-friendly way meaning that it had to be secreted away out of view. However unlike a customer vehicle, some of the equipment at least would have to be put on show at events. For this reason, the digital source unit (Audison bit Play HD), five-channel amplifier (Audison 5.1K HD) and processor (Audison bit One HD) are mounted under a vanity panel below the boot floor panel. This enables FOUR to remove the boot floor at public events so the products can be viewed. Although by no means compact, the 5.1K HD amplifier does not intrude on anything other than the wheel nut removal kit which they have found another space for in the car.
The amplifier accepts a digital input from the bit One HD and has to drive speakers capable of demonstrating the benefits of a pure source. To make the most of the fabulous electronics, founders of FOUR UK Ltd, Brian Parton and Jas Dehele specified a pair of Audison Thesis TH 1.5 II Violino tweeters. To get the most out of these, they specifically wanted them to be as “on-axis” as possible and this meant recruiting the help of Reece Turner of RTA Fabrication. His job was to fabricate replacement A-pillar trim, sturdy enough to house the tweeters and with a quality of finish befitting of the general finish of the vehicle. Having had a close up view of the a-pillar trim, I can state that the quality of finish is fabulous. If you weren’t familiar with the interior of a BMW Mini, you could be excused for thinking it was a standard part – if you are very familiar with the interior of the vehicle, you may even be moved to suggest it is better than the original trim, finished in Alcantara rather than a dull velour-like material. While not completely facing the driver or front-seated passenger, the angle established ensures that the tweeters are neither firing directly toward each other or against the windscreen. Both of those scenarios have a serious, detrimental effect on the soundstage often resulting in music riddled with non-linear phase discrepancies and in many standard offerings, mono reproduction.
The TH 1.5 II features a 1.5” Tetelon (mixture of pure natural silk and man-made fibres) dome and a generous resonance chamber enabling it to accurately reproduce signals down to 1.5 kHz. Even if not exploited to their limits, the additional frequency response allows a smoother transition between mid and high frequencies while the cone size provides a wonderfully comforting timbre at the high end.
Mid-range is catered for by the very excellent Audison Voce AV 3.0. These inhabit the standard positions and fire across the car. This is not perfect and I would rather they had a bit of angle on them, but the ability of these speakers to perform under such circumstances is truly astonishing anyway.
The tricky under-seat situation is dealt with by replacements made by German manufacturer, UPGRADE. These are easy for a specialist to install. There are many under-seat replacements around for BMW these days but please be careful, quality varies wildly. Fortunately, the UG B196 Neo is a highly competent solution. It is well documented that I prefer subtlety in the bass department and I happen to know that these can be set up to suit. They can also be set up to kick you up the backside if that is more your thing! In this installation they can do both thanks to the DRC remote controller. This is beautifully integrated into the centre console and is mounted in a 3D printed bezel that sits below the USB port and Aux in socket – Once again, like it was always there! The sub control offers a massive 12dB swing in gain so, subtle to headache with a turn of a knob.
Having picked up some annoying bus lane penalties whilst attempting to get the ultimate urban street shot of the car, we ended up outside Europe’s largest guitar emporium, “Guitar Guitar” in Birmingham. As a keen player myself this offered the perfect opportunity for me to have a go on one of the new Taylor guitars featuring their revolutionary V-Bracing. I won't bore you with the detail, but suggest that if you are a guitarist, you check this out on the Taylor website – V-Bracing is the future, offering perfectly linear response and huge possibilities when it comes to recording and live mic’ing.
I had already decided to audition this system with an out of the ordinary Jeff Buckley track, “Mojo Pin” from probably one of the most influential recordings of the 90’s, “Grace”. As Jeff tragically died while recording his follow-up album, very little of the artist’s work exists in final form. Fortunately, this exquisite studio performance and recording remain a lasting tribute to his genius and it is available in glorious 24-bit, 96kHz form, which the Audison bit play HD tends to render best of all.
Mojo Pin begins with a rapid fade in of sustained guitar harmonic chord modulated with a tremolo arm. This is quickly joined by other “pinched” harmonics with the soft, sweet vocal entry at 18 seconds. One of the key features of Buckley’s music is his high and often falsetto vocals. He uses his voice to excellent effect and was bold enough to record long, high notes without the need to smother them with harmony vocals or bring them down in the mix. Thom Yorke of Radiohead makes no secret of the fact that seeing Jeff Buckley live gave him the confidence to put his high vocals out front, rather than hide them behind many layers of reverb and harmonies.
Soon after the vocal entry is a picked electric guitar joined by some ambient synth “chattering”. The sweet vocal continues with pitch perfect accuracy as Jeff introduces the lyric with ethereal “Oooohs”. The lyric begins at 54 seconds, in a much lower register “I’m lying in my bed, the blanket is warm.” This vocal is very close mic’d and every sibilant click, “s”, and nuance of his voice is so clearly reproduced by the Thesis tweeters, you can almost count his teeth! Such is his mastery of vocal phrasing the perfectly-timed breathing does not overwhelm or shock unlike many gasping and gulping modern-day artists attempting similar technique.
A musical colon at 1:12 heralds the arrival of tickling cymbals and gently struck drums accentuated by deep bass guitar notes that perfectly track the kick drum. Everything is still very gentle at this point as Jeff continues to tell his story of infatuation bordering on addiction to a mystery person. The track continues to bloom until 1:38 when another musical punctuation mark is followed by a ramping up of energy on the drums and guitars. The Voce mids come into their own here, providing the punch required to add energy to the track. This is still a gentle track but now the bass has real strength and the complicated drum pattern with pure, deep, tom tom hits becomes more intense but, in this car, with no loss of subtlety. The vocals are still the dominant element of the song but the previously picked electric guitar is now strummed and joined by another similarly played on the opposite side of the soundstage.
At 2:19 a return to the finger picking and even higher vocal-vibing that is still as pure as the driven snow although one senses a step back from the microphone as the vocal power is turned up a notch or two. “Precious, precious silver and gold.” continues Jeff while another guitar is introduced playing sustained chords sounding for all the world like bowed strings. 3:10, more punctuation before the drummer really lets loose with the snare drum adding more force and conviction to the track. Strummed guitars now as we build to a climax at around 3:50 with stabbed guitars punctuated with drums before returning to the gentler picked atmospherics. At 4:40 the whole ensemble explodes an H-bomb, driving the meters into the red and offering a preview of just how heavy a sound they intend to make later on in the album. The high vocal climax seems unfeasible until you get to know Buckley’s voice better. The track finishes with the harmonic guitar chord with which it began which sounds as if it has been spliced into a loop as you can actually hear the join in the tape! – It may have been a digitally created loop of course, but I am an old romantic. The point is the edit point is clearly audible.
As I sit and marvel at the clarity, dynamic range and balance of the sound in this car, I am tempted to remain for the rest of the album. However, I have to get on and the car is required for more demonstrations.
I remain certain that those lucky enough to hear this car will be rushing out to get their sound sorted! I certainly hope so, as music as delicate and polished as this deserves far more than most motor manufacturers seem prepared to offer us!
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