Audio Complement To BMW M3 Performance
Thanks to Graham Hopkins’ commitment to upgraded car audio I was able to experience the pristine highs and strong lows of his perfectly balanced system, which adds a new element of pleasure to the inherent performance of this magnificent beast.
I am often finding myself in a position where I have to admit to not really knowing a lot about cars. I used to be a big car fan when I was much younger and have been in a car associated industry for many years, but I would struggle to identify many cars if they were without their identifying brand and model badges today. However, I do understand the passion others have and the ambition they have to own the car of their dreams. To find someone who is passionate about cars and the audio upgrades they have instigated is always a joy though, as I can fully understand the need and the resulting pleasure in doing so.
Graham is a forty-something single man who spends his life around power stations, especially nuclear ones – he doesn't however, glow in the dark! He supervises “shut down crews” who work when the power stations are off-line and as such, spends a lot of time away from home. As I often do, I asked him about this home set up; “I spend so little time at home that I haven't really invested in home equipment. I do well over 14,000 miles per year in the car however, and most of my listening happens while driving from wherever in the country I am working and home.” Graham explains. “This is why my car is so important to me. I have been looking for an M3 for years and have had several near misses having had sports versions of the BMW 3-series that were cheaper equivalents. When this one came up, I jumped at it as owning a proper M3 has long been on my radar.”
I asked Graham what led him to upgrade the audio and received a common, heart-felt music lover’s response; “Factory-fitted car audio is crap! I am not a hardcore music listener but compared with all other music sources I have heard, I just fail to get any emotional connection with music that comes from standard cars.” – I was obviously thrilled at this response as this opinion is not only extremely common, but it is one that I share. Graham continued; “Since my early car-owning years, I have always had the factory system pulled out and thrown away in favour of just about anything else. As I have matured and become a little more financially settled, the cars and their systems have increased in both value and performance. Owning this car means a lot to me and I wanted the audio to be special too. Because of this, I had no decision to make when it came to who I would trust to match an audio system with the performance of the car. Nick Graham at Audio Island is famous locally for being the man to go to for first-class car audio. I have known Nick for many years and have always taken my cars to him. I usually have some idea of what I am looking for and have to admit that cost has previously been as big a driver as anything else. This time, although I wasn’t in “the sky’s the limit” bracket, I did want to allow Nick as much freedom as possible to really show what he could do.”
“My chief requirement was that I would retain all of the original functions of the BMW system. I already knew about some of the tricks that many manufacturers pull in order to attempt to make cheap speakers sound good at varying levels.”
For those who do not know, the tricks are many and varied. Most typically, the bass and treble will be falsely boosted. This gives the impression of quality, especially when the car is stationary in the showroom and many customers, who after all are buying a car not an audio system, are easily fooled into believing they are hearing a high quality sound. On the move, things are very different however. The bass you thought you had disappears as does a lot of the directional information in the high frequency range and one is left with a very tiring and mushy middle frequency range that is extremely hard to listen to and even harder to enjoy – No wonder many car owners when prompted suggest that they only listen to talk radio shows; it is about the only thing that a factory system will allow without extreme fatigue setting in.
I arranged to meet Graham at Audio Island and Nick Graham who installed the system was on hand to answer detailed questions. Nick told me; “I have known Graham for many years and over that time have gained insight into the type of music he likes to listen to and how he likes it to sound. Good customers like Graham are always encouraged to return for tweaks to their systems. Things change over time and requests for specific sounds help us to build a profile of these customers, which helps us the next time around. It also avoids customers who are not entirely happy, putting up with a sound they are not getting on with.”
As a new experiment, I wanted to listen to the car before learning too much about what went into it. I threw some tracks that I know well at it that I thought would tell me what was going on.
The first of these was the very excellent “No Love Dying” by Gregory Porter. Recorded in the Jazz tradition, this beautiful song has a number of elements that reveal a lot about a system. The first clues are in the drum kit. On this system, you could hear the actual height of the kit as well as the width. The accuracy of the playing was extremely evident and there is a “swish cymbal” mixed quite low. This is a cymbal with rivets in it that adds a long decaying “swish” after being struck it also has a soft attack. When recorded properly as it is here, I am always put in mind of the sound of the sea sweeping up a pebble beach. Many systems don't reproduce this too well as the attack comes over too heavy and the decay too short. No issues here though, I could almost drown in the oncoming waves which only died away when they reached my toes. The next notable sound that I like to listen out for on this track happens on the first long note of the saxophone solo. As the player, Yosuke Sato, runs out of puff, you can hear the sound of his saliva under the reed – This may not sound too appetising, but as an audio phenomenon it offers a physical connection to the art of playing this beautiful instrument. Gregory Porter’s vocal sounds dynamite even with your head under a pillow, but in this car I could imagine lovers melting into each other’s arms as a result of his “orgasmic” delivery. The whole thing left me very, very chilled and so clearly I needed something to pick me up.
The track I chose to do this was “Layover” by Michael Hedges. This phenomenal guitarist led the way in modern acoustic finger-style playing introducing a style and techniques considered completely alien by other competent exponents of the instrument. Often using two hands on the fingerboard and using percussive hammer-ons and pull-offs to make the strings sound, this track in particular presents a fiery and energetic sound. The bits where the string is plucked in the traditional manner are bright and zingy and have an almost brittle feel while the hammered sections are clearly articulated and timed to perfection. Sometimes, this style of playing can be spoilt by the noise made when a player slides his fingers up and down the bass strings. This produces a squeaking sound that some people, as well as my sadly departed pet Labrador, find fingernail-on-blackboard distressing. Here, you hear it as integrated as all of the other slaps, hits and twiddles which make up the piece and so it is not annoying at all.
The final track I listened to was “The Blood I Bled” by The Staves. This group of three sisters from Watford, singing the purest harmonies ever heard are soon to become very big stars, mark my words. This track has a distinctly folk root and begins with a low plucked instrument that sounds very much like a mandolin although I am not sure it is. The beautiful breathy vocal of the first verse took my breath away in this car. I could hear the subtle reverb which seems detached from the vocal rather than swamping it or being used to attempt to bury any imperfections in it – there are none of course! The track builds slowly with first a 12-string guitar then other guitars joining the fray. At 1:20 the drums kick-in adding heavy drama to the tight vocal harmonies that have now been numbing my senses for a while. The track is full of ups and downs and every segment sounded beautiful; even the violins toward the end sound soft and sentimental and not harsh and “scrapey” as they often can do when listened to on substandard equipment.
As a result of the audition, I had made a couple of assumptions as to what made this system sound so good, both of which were incorrect. Firstly, I reasoned the relaxed accuracy of the high-end alongside a total lack of harshness was down to the deployment of Audison Voce speakers. It turns out however that this car is fitted with a pair of Rainbow custom fit three-ways. These are run from an Audison Prima 8.9 bit amplifier that despite its apparent modest power and tiny size, kicks extremely hard when required to do so. Its eight amplified channels plus an extra subwoofer output allow huge amounts of flexibility and in this instance the three-way Rainbows are running actively which means each speaker has its own dedicated amplifier channel. This left two amplified channels available to fire a pair of Rainbow custom-fit 4-inch coaxial speakers in the rear. These can be used to add some ambience or to satisfy rear-seated passengers. The subwoofer output goes to a boot-mounted Hertz DBA 200. This is an amplified 8-inch subwoofer mounted in an enclosure with two passive radiators that work in sympathy to enhance low-end and it works extremely well, even in this car where the boot is notoriously well isolated from the passenger compartment as far as sound is concerned.
Graham explained that while driving he needs to add extra bass, as the boot area seems to eat it when he is on the motorway. A handy bass boost control is fitted in a little coin box to the right of the steering wheel for this specific purpose.
The second incorrect assumption was that the system had been tuned using the revolutionary Audison bit Tune diagnostic aid. This uses a dummy head microphone and some test tones to set bit processed systems for optimum performance, however, this proved to be incorrect. Nick at Audio Island using nothing more than a tape measure and his phenomenal ears had done the set-up! Furthermore, Nick tells me this is the first Prima car he has ever tackled.
As is traditional for this magazine I wanted to explore Graham’s musical tastes. He explained that he has very broad tastes but has a concentration of Rock and particularly American Rock music. He listens mainly to lossless Apple files from his iPhone via USB. He told me; “When I came to collect the car, Nick played me a Dire Straits track, I think it was Brothers in Arms. This has become a firm favourite of mine as the detail and clarity is mind-blowing. In fact, clarity is a word I use frequently when describing my car these days. I am discovering all sorts of new dimensions amongst even the most familiar tunes in my library. I can go from small acoustic gig all the way to “Pier 39” - a nightclub I visited extremely often in the 80’s in Cleethorpes, just by pressing “next” on my iPhone. This is, without question, the best thing I have ever heard in a car and I am delighted with every aspect of the system and its installation. Nick and the boys did a fantastic job!”
Rainbow BMW E/F Series IL-C8.3 MIX
Rainbow BMW E/F Series IL-4X MIX
Hertz Dieci DBA 200.3
Connection cables and accessories
Graham’s Top Five Driving Sounds:
This aint goodbye - Train
True Faith - New Order
The Day We caught The Train - Ocean Colour Scene
Two Tribes - Frankie Goes To Holywood
Missing - Everything But The Girl (Todd Terry Mix)
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