Bowers & Wilkins is Business Insider’s 2016 Car Audio System of the Year

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Skye Gould/BI Graphics

Business Insider just named its 2016 Car of the Year: the Acura NSX.

This year, we’re unveiling two new awards: Audio System of the Year and Infotainment System of the Year. These are both important categories, as car audio becomes increasingly sophisticated, optimized for maximum listening pleasure; and as infotainment systems point toward everything from connected cars to autonomous vehicles.

Our 2016 Audio System of the Year is Bowers & Wilkins.

Over the course of the past 12 months, the BI Transportation team has sampled every high-end audio system available in vehicles and installed my the original manufacturer – as well as some systems aimed as more mass-market cars and trucks. (We didn’t consider any aftermarket systems.)

The finalists

We distilled our experiences to a list of five finalists:

    Bose Bowers & Wilkins Fender Naim Audio Revel

I’m BI’s resident car-audiophile (sort of), and I hashed out my assessments with Transportation Reporters Ben Zhang and Danielle Muoio, as well as Senior Transportation Editor Cadie Thompson.

Our process for this award was fairly subjective. But because we enjoyed so many systems over the year, we were able to notice what some audio setups did better than others. By and large, however, car-audio systems these days are uniformly excellent. The old AM/FM-two-speaker arrangements of yesteryear are long gone. And even the most basic vehicles frequently offer Bluetooth integration, AUX ports, satellite radio, and multi-speaker soundstages, complete with powerful amplifiers, carefully tuned speakers, and subwoofers.

Upmarket systems are often an option on cars, and at times a pricey one. But in our view they’re well worth considering.

Our five finalists each provide a distinctive listening experience, across a wide range of musical styles. Obviously, when listening to music in a vehicle, you will be using a variety of media: terrestrial radio, satellite radio, CDs, MP3s, Bluetooth streaming, and streaming audio services such as Pandora, Spotify, and Tidal. You may also be using USB inputs or an AUX jack, so the quality of your source audio will vary. (For the most part, I’ve found that plugging into the AUX jack gives me the best modern audio, although some experts maintain that the USB port is better, and that using CD-player input still offers the best sound).

The big winner

Bowers & Wilkins is a British company that’s been around since the mid-1960s and is renowned for its home-audio systems. In the cars we sampled that had B&W setups – including Volvos, Maseratis, the new BMW 7 Series – the listening experience was sublime. B&W is all about detail, detail, detail. The bass is lush and resonant, the midrange is a veritable riot of musical information, and the highs have the piercing clarity of angelic falsettos. If you like to experience your music deeply, then B&W has what you seek. Especially if you’re a fan of classical music. But really, everything sounds wonderful spilling from these speakers.

As far as the combination of car and B&W systems goes, I’d say that the BMW 7 Series provided the best setting, for what it’s worth (16 speakers, 1,400 watts in the BMW we tested).

The runner up

This was tricky, because objectively the Naim Audio system in the new Bentley Bentayga SUV is mind-boggling good, by far the best car-audio execution I’ve ever head in my entire career. It’s almost indescribably superb. I heard detail I had never heard before, in music I had listened to countless times on high-end home audio systems. The experience was, frankly, almost disturbing. And it happened again and again.

But the Naim system isn’t as widely available as the Bowers & Wilkins, and I didn’t enjoy it outside the Bentayga. As fabulous as it is, that put it in second place.

The Bose, Revel, and Fender systems were also wonderful – each has its own distinctive quality. You can read my impressions of all three here.