I tried to look impressed. He was so pleased with it that I wanted it to be good. And it was, in a way: it was stereo only, he said, none of this surround sound nonsense.
There was just a USB input for your own music, because that’s what customers want, he said, and left and right speakers of various sizes in front of you or, in the case of a subwoofer, down near the seat behind you. The sound system of the Bugatti Chiron, he said, was carefully specified, and delicately tuned; a stereo for real audiophiles.
At this stage I should admit that I’m not one. But, coincidentally, just a few days before hearing the Chiron’s stereo I had finally set-up the amplifier and speakers I bought 20 years ago in my front room. (I’ve moved house since, I should add. It’s not that I haven’t used them at all, just not where I currently live.)
So for a year or so most of my music listening has been done in cars. I’d started to get an ear for good or bad car audio. Then I put my budget hi-fi separates in the living room and was fairly blown away. Crikey. This is how sound should, er, sound.
Now, I’ve read a few hi-fi reviews in my time and I suspect they’re impossible to replicate without getting your copy straight into Pseuds Corner. But here goes. In my living room, the remixes on New Order’s Substance 1987 compilation fizz with vibrancy, separating snares from synths with astonishing clarity; while the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle brings the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony oozing to life with deft pointedness, before attacking the finale with... okay, I’m totally winging this, even more than the average TripAdvisor reviewer. Still, experts, eh? They’re so last year.
Nevertheless I did ask an expert how come this antiquated £300 system sounded so much better than one costing several thousand pounds installed in a car. Not just the Bugatti’s, I should add, but any car system I’ve ever heard.
It’s about space, she said. A car has ‘no acoustic’; apparently that’s a technical term. Look at a concert hall or listening room and you’ll see a fair bit of air between the surfaces, many of which are sound reflective too.
A car doesn’t have these. It has very little room and a load of damped surfaces, so it’s like expecting a foamlined cupboard to sound good. Then there’s wind and road noise, too. So it is akin to a foam-lined cupboard falling over a waterfall.
It’s an unsuitable environment. Sounds have no space to develop. You can’t sit far enough away from the source, yet also left and right are too separated, ergo the speakers are at once too near and too far; which is why audio companies put effects – surround and hall-mimicking capabilities – into the loudspeakers.
The best systems I’ve heard are a Rolls-Royce Phantom’s, and the most expensive Range Rover options. Both are, I don’t doubt, terrific systems in the first place, but are also aided, I suspect, by being in cars with large reflective glass and wood panels and spacious interiors.
There are loads of great things about developing supercars for a living, but trying to make their stereos sound great isn’t one of them.