Travelling In A Fried-out Kombi?
We were invited to listen to this VW T5. Not a camper this time and not a hippy in sight, but a family mover used for weekend trips out. Lucky family, I say!
Having reviewed the vast internal spaces of a number of T5 camper vans, it was a refreshing change to sit in a Kombi - more akin to a very posh minibus. This vehicle has been prepared by FOUR MASTER, Audio Island in Grimsby and has clearly had a lot of love lavished upon it!
Nick Graham, proprietor of Audio Island, took personal responsibility for the audio installation for which he had received a brief to make “stunning”. Nick was unclear as to whether or not there was any budget restriction – nice work if you can get it Nick!
The vehicle was totally stripped and the entire van received a comprehensive application of the very excellent Skinz Expert sound deadening material. On top of this, Skinz Panel Liner was also employed in the doors to add further quiet to what is after all, just a builder’s van! Audio Island work on many VW T5s and so Nick and his crew know exactly where to apply sound deadening materials to the greatest effect. Nick explains; “We have tried many different sound treatment strategies and concluded that the best improvement you can make to a T5 is to line it completely with Skinz. Treating the floor and roof makes an enormous difference on this vehicle. Once completed it feels more like an executive saloon than a van!”
No stranger to what makes a good audio system, Nick had the whole of the Hertz and Audison product portfolios to choose from but first, a DAB radio upgrade was required. The van is used regularly around the Grimsby area where digital radio reception is pretty good. Nick was keen to point out that although a DAB add-on product can be fairly competent, he was keen to change the original head unit fitted to the vehicle, as it isn’t very good at all! To this end, he selected the highly competent Pioneer AVIC-F77DAB. This double DIN unit is full of connectivity features including Bluetooth, Apple Car Play and Android Auto it also features navigation, which can be very useful for the casual tourer with a propensity toward exploration! Although very capable I am sure, the head unit’s rendering of music is of secondary importance in this installation, as the majority of music will be streamed from an Audison bit Play HD. This incredible product is capable of streaming a huge amount of different file types including WAV, FLAC and a myriad of other formats. It can even stream 24bit, 96kHz FLAC files which are becoming increasingly popular amongst audiophiles who obtain them from sites such as Qobuz and HD Tracks. FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec and is a way of encoding the super large files required for 24bit audio to reduce their size before expanding for playback with absolutely no loss. I am reluctant to use any comparison with MP3 where files are compressed and left compressed forever - so much of the information is simply thrown away.
We carried a lot of coverage for the Audison bit Play HD and high definition audio in issue V and a full explanation of this truly fantastic product’s capabilities can be read in a digital download from the Driving Sounds website.
It would be pointless to employ such a high tech, audiophile source unit without hanging amplifiers and speakers on the end to get the best out of it. Nick had already specified Hertz Mille Legend speakers for the front of the vehicle as they are known to deliver superb reproduction particularly in the high-end. Due to the innovative design of the tweeter they allow the high-end in particular, to be carefully modelled to suit the listener’s preference. Our ears and listening gear are all different and some like different treatment especially at high frequencies. Nick wanted a three-way set. This allows a good installer to obtain much better balance throughout the frequency range as each speaker can be optimised for a narrow range of frequencies - this helps with instrument separation. Speaker placement is extremely important at this level of install as Nick was looking for a heavenly sound stage. He wanted to mount the Hertz Mille 700.3, 3” midrange in the A-pillar trim underneath the ML 280.3 tweeters. Nick’s workshop is not set up for this kind of precision fabrication work at the moment so he asked close friends, FOUR MASTER Source Sounds to build these for him. Far from simply cutting holes in the existing trim, the trim is remanufactured with far heavier materials in order to provide a solid base for the speakers to work properly. The resulting pillars are a work of art and would be easily missed unless you were looking for them! The woofers, Mille 1650.3’s, sit in the factory positions ensuring that the vehicle occupant’s ankles and shins are fed with plenty of bass. Actually, the negative effect of this most stupid of mounting positions is fantastically compensated for as they are fed less directional low frequencies and also as they feature the now classic Hertz V-Cone technology which helps hugely with sound dispersion.
The speakers are run from an Audison Voce Quattro 4-channel amplifier which is split between the front mids and tweeters via a passive crossover and another pair of 2-way Hertz Mille’s (MLK 165.3) installed in the rear of the vehicle. A more powerful Audison Voce Due, 2-channel amplifier, drives the front woofers. Behind the rear seats and down low sits an enormous box housing a pair of 8” subwoofers. A mighty Audison Voce Uno monoblock amplifier drives these. Adding up the power capability of the three separate amplifiers, I came up with a fantastical figure of 1700Watts RMS. People like big numbers but the figure is meaningless without a number of other factors being taken into account. I wield it here simply to explain why Nick has installed a giant leisure battery under the floor of the rear payload area.
The finish in the vehicle is absolutely pristine. The payload area features a panel built onto a rear bulkhead that separates the front five seats from the rear. Three Voce amplifiers with an identical footprint are mounted on this and edge-lit with some fancy LED lighting that can be remotely adjusted to a mix from a huge pallet of different colours. A roof light unit is also used to illuminate this area as well as some lights set into the rear door. I am not quite certain why the lighting in this area was so important and neither is Nick. However, it must have been just the ticket when wiring the whole thing together. Behind the beautifully trimmed panel around the amplifiers is the Audison bit Play HD as well as an Audison bit One processor and a 10 Farad smoothing capacitor to aid with heavy transient bass response. The necessarily large crossover units also reside under this “panel of huge significance”
Make no mistake this is a system fitting of the “expert” category. Although not hugely complicated, there is a fine juggling act required to get this sounding right. Nick used his Audison bit Tune for the original set up. This takes measurements and makes adjustments to the bit One processor “on-the-fly” setting parameters as closely as can be using test tones. Naturally, final adjustments were made by ear as only music can tell you if something sounds right. Nick is either extremely self-effacing or simply very modest when it comes to his ability to set up audio in a car. He openly admits to being a little sceptical of those claiming to have “golden ears” and simply sets up to his own taste. This is only the second car I have listened to of his, but both have been flawless to my ears. Perhaps our listening gear is just very similar. Anyway, as you will read below, this T5 sounds none too shabby!
A brief browse through the library contained on the bit Play revealed a huge number of albums for me to select from including high definition and CD quality FLAC files and WAV files. An incredibly eclectic mix of music had my head reeling initially but I decided to go for a track that I know well to begin with.
Acoustic guitar impresario, Livingston Taylor’s arrangement of the Stevie Wonder classic, “Isn't She Lovely” was my first choice. We use this as a reference track at shows when demonstrating just how car audio should sound. This track sounds quite flat and ordinary on many a standard car audio system but the high definition version played in this vehicle tells a completely different story. A breathy whistle panned left of centre introduces us to the main melody underpinned by a minimalist guitar accompaniment of picked and arpeggiated chords panned right. At around 40 seconds, the lustrous vocal takes place of the whistle and a second guitar is introduced by way of a harmonic glissando and then some punctuating fills on the left. Under this, a stand up bass, low down in the mix and playing extremely low frequencies fills the sound stage with a slightly eerie edge to begin with. At 1:16 a conga is introduced and the track begins to move along. More crystal clear harmonics from the guitar on the left and we are all systems go! The guitar on the left warms up for a solo at 1:47 and at 1:49 is a cunningly placed tambourine. I know this is a cliché but it sounds so real, the percussionist could be sitting right next to me! In fact, the sound stage definition, placement of all instruments and ambience of the track are so spacious I get a little tingle. The depth of bass and warmth of the high frequencies continue the impression of being in the physical presence of the performers – this really does sound the best I have ever heard it!
Next up, I selected a 16bit rendition of Neil Young’s “Old Man” from the album Live at Massey Hall. Originally recorded and released in 1971, this was the 2007 re-mastered version. I remember recording a live performance he did at the BBC around the same time by sticking a microphone in front of the speaker on our TV and plugged in to my father’s Philips reel-to-reel tape recorder. My brother and I played that tape a zillion times along with similarly recorded performances from Joni Mitchell and James Taylor of about the same vintage. I guess that our recording was from the same tour as much of the banter between songs is the same or very similar. Neil Young is known for his “interesting” voice that often sounds a little strained. An impression reinforced by the way he screws his face up while performing. On this recording his voice has an almost pure, angelic quality. There are a lot of bumps knocks and low-end artefacts - quite common in live acoustic performances - and they were detracting a little from the performance. I turned the sub box off altogether and it sounded much better. I can detect a little added reverb that suggests a modicum of post-production although nothing to suggest that entire tracks were recorded in a studio unlike many so-called “live” performances I have heard. Again, the sound was so real, it took me back to 1971 when I first picked up a guitar and attempted to get my young fingers around this song.
Next, Nick joined me and led me, quite rightly, toward something a little more energetic by way of Lionel Ritchie’s “Running With The Night”. This is not a song I would have chosen to play at all, so I was thrilled that Nick had pointed me in this direction. With subwoofers turned back on, we are initially faced with a closed hi-hat figure with some breathy keyboard stabs and a funky guitar riff panned right. Nick had taken control of the volume and it was turned up quite high. A bass guitar sits right on top of on-the-beat kick drum hits that sound like explosions. At 56 seconds, straight after “the magic got away” there is a brief tom-tom break that again sounds like it is happening live in the vehicle. The tom-toms recur a little too often and suspiciously mechanically for my tastes but are really spectacular to hear. I am not a great fan of the amount of processing that has been applied to the vocal. Lionel doesn't need all those time modulating aids to enhance his already brilliant voice but it was the trend of the day as embodied by many an American 80’s cop show sound track. In any case, it is further testament to the incredible fidelity of the system that I can clearly pick out what has been done! The best bit of the track for me is Steve Lukather’s all-too-short guitar solo.
We listened to many other songs some of which forced a tear, others made me laugh out loud, all of them moved me in some way or another. I did not want to leave. I remain in awe of the effort and attention to detail that has gone into this audio system. I would rank it as one of the best I have ever heard! Has it met the brief? Yes, “Stunning” is the only single word that comes close to doing this vehicle justice. If you are near by, I believe Nick can make the vehicle available for those interested in replicating this level of sonic excellence in their own vehicles.
Nick Graham’s Top Five Tunes:
“Fireisland” - Solarstone
“King of Pain” - The Police
“Jeremy” - Pearl Jam
“Jumbo” - Underworld (live version)
“Starlight” – Slash (feat. Myles Kennedy)
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