As luxury vehicle manufacturers learn more and more on novel tech and features to move their vehicles, we’ve seen a surge in branded high-end audio systems. You’re probably familiar with a few of them at least: Mark Levinson and Lexus, Meridian and Land Rover, Naim and Bentley, Burmester with Mercedes and Porsche, and now, with the announcement of the very handsome 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee last week, we’re seeing McIntosh launch an automotive partnership once again.
Before its partnership with Jeep, McIntosh worked directly with Harley-Davidson, Subaru and Ford on branded audio systems; the latter is exclusive to the 2005-2006 Ford GT. It also offered very high-end aftermarket car audio systems for a while, and has been around as a company since 1949.
The system in the Jeep Grand Cherokee is called the MX950, owing to its 950 watts of output from 17 channels. It uses 19 McIntosh-designed speakers in 12 locations throughout in the cabin. Considering McIntosh amps powered Woodstock and the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound, the company definitely knows how to provide an immersive experience.
When a company designs audio components meant for in-home use, things like size, weight and cost are generally less of a concern than outright performance, accuracy and aesthetics. In a high-end home audio setup, you can have amps that weigh 100 pounds per channel and speakers that weigh three times that amount. In a vehicle, where weight affects everything from overall performance to fuel economy, that won’t fly, so the audio companies have to get creative.
For McIntosh, this involves leveraging a few patents that it has for room equalization in home theatre equipment, which digitally compensates for the design of a room (or a vehicle cabin) and its LD/HP (low distortion, high power) speakers. These technologies are paired with the company’s Class A/B amplifier designs to create a system that looks and sounds like the iconic blue-glowing, glass-faced gear that made McIntosh famous.
Other brands, like UK firm Naim, have taken a similar approach to their design processes, but with some changes. The Naim systems for Bentley cars undergo a multistage design process. First, Naim takes the measurements of the cabin from Bentley and runs them through a proprietary algorithm to get a starting point for speaker placement and system design. Then it works with its sister company, French speaker manufacturer Focal, to spec the ideal drivers for each application — a convertible will have different needs than an SUV, for example.
Naim then adjusts things in its amplifiers — Class D in its vehicle systems and in its Mu-So wireless speaker,— to measure as accurately as possible for distortion characteristics. From there, Naim engineers work back from those designs until they arrive at something that not only sounds pleasing to the ear, but shows off the hallmarks of a Naim system — sacrificing some of the headline figures like total harmonic distortion (THD) for something enjoyable.
The story is similar with Burmester, a German firm that got its start in automotive systems by designing the stereo in the Bugatti Veyron in 2005. It partnered with Porsche in 2009 and Mercedes-Benz in 2013. Its engineers work with Porsche and Mercedes from the very early stages of a vehicle’s design — years before its public debut — to optimize things like speaker placement and integration with its electrical system. This was the case with the new S-Class, where Burmester worked to integrate exciters into the vehicle’s front seats. These units provide physical feedback to the listener, adding another layer to the experience — something Mercedes-Benz calls a 4D setup.
Experience is the keyword here, too. To get someone to pay as much as $10,000 on top of an already-expensive vehicle’s asking price, an audio company must deliver something more than pleasant sound. The Fender audio system in a Volkswagen sounds good, but it doesn’t offer you a unique experience. These high-end branded audio systems are trying to immerse you in your music, and speaking from experience — as a bit of an in-home hi-fi nerd — they largely succeed.
“We understand that customers don’t just want great sound,” Charlie Randall, president of McIntosh Laboratory, said in a statement. “They want to get a full sensory experience. And that’s why it was so important that we left no stone unturned to deliver a true McIntosh entertainment system for the Jeep Grand Cherokee L. We’re thrilled to bring our brand to a whole new group of people who may never have experienced McIntosh before.”
That last part about bringing customers into the fold is an interesting aspect of the branded audio trend, too. Getting someone who might not have previously been into home audio into a dealer to sit and listen to systems and spend all kinds of money is, understandably, a big lift. But getting someone interested in your brand’s home audio offerings if they’ve already experienced it in their cars makes more sense. It’s a conversion rate the companies can’t really quantify, but they all seem to think it’s a real thing.
Much like the audio industry in general, the world of branded automotive audio can be surprisingly complex and subtle. At times, it is hard to justify where price is concerned. $300,000 is a lot for a nicely optioned Bentley Continental GT, but Naim’s flagship amplifier for home use — the Statement — costs $100,000, and that doesn’t include speakers, sources, cables and so on.
Some people will likely get into the new Jeep Grand Cherokee L Summit, fire up the McIntosh MX950 and never really think about it as anything more than a means to listen to the radio. Others will find excuses to go on long drives to nowhere and crank up their favorite music to ear-bleeding levels, simply to revel in the richness. Which are you?