Infiniti's New "Studio On Wheels"

Some days I feel like Stereophile's designated audio antichrist. After all, I wrote an automotive audio column for the magazine about 10 years back—a feature that prompted more than one reader to send the pages carrying my column back to Santa Fe as "not what I subscribed for"—and I reviewed the iPod. So, not really being a glutton for punishment, I wasn't wildly enthusiastic when Edelman account executive Stefani Gudis tendered an invitation to hear the Infiniti/Bose "Studio On Wheels" model G35 sedan. It wasn't that I didn't think that car audio could be a valid musical experience, I simply had been disappointed too many times by car manufacturers touting "audiophile" sound packages, which, upon examination, were probably more about preventing aftermarket add-ons by car audio installers. BTDT, as the kids text-message.

But Ms. Gudis is persistent—and the premise of the demo was intriguing. Held inside the big recording studio at New York's Avatar Studios, the demo would feature a performance by the Mike LeDonne Jazz Quintet, followed by a listening session inside the G35, featuring recordings of the quintet made in the room they'd just performed in.

That A/B bait got me hook, line, and sinker. Infiniti kindly scheduled me to be the last demo of the day, so "you can listen as long as you want," Thomas C. Crahan explained. Turned out that the "Studio On Wheels" was Crahan's baby—he'd fought for it, worked out the industry alliances, and kept it on target from conception to completion.

And what was that target? "Two-channel high-end audio," Crahan told me. "I have a friend who's a really serious audiophile, and some of the most intense musical experiences I've ever had have been sitting in the sweet spot between his two speakers. I mean, with the right recording and everything tuned perfectly, you can hear stuff on his system I've never heard in thousands of hearings."

Oh yes, I've heard of that happening.

Playing devil's advocate, I said, "Some people would say that the automotive environment is fairly inimical to that sort of detail—or even experience."

"They'd be right, talking about most cars, but the MVA (mechanical vibration analysis) that goes into the best constructed cars out there, reduces the amount of road noise, etc that you'd otherwise have in the cabin. Plus, you know where everyone is going to be inside the cabin, so you can plan accordingly. It is possible to have a real hi-fi experience in a car, but it isn't easy to do.

"That's where Bose comes in. We were fortunate to get to work with John Feng as Bose's Manager of Audio Systems Engineering on this project." Feng is a violinist, an EE, and has worked for some of the most prestigious acoustical architecture folks out there. I immediately recognized a fellow obsessive and we got along like a house on fire.

"Bose has a fair amount of experience working with auto makers," Feng allowed, "but Thomas was something else. He started out by saying that cost constraints weren't going to be what determined our direction. It was all about the results."

"That's not to say that Infiniti authorized me to burn money on this project," Crahan said. "But they gave me the freedom to choose something better, even if it cost more. All the engineers told me we should go 5.1-channel DVD for a source, but two-channel CD is still the gold standard from a listening experience point of view, so I searched and searched for a source. I finally found one that incorporated double oversampling 24-bit/96kHz Burr-Brown DACs. That really sounds better than anything else we could find and we looked all over the world.

"John worked up a system that incorporated 10 speakers within the cabin. The main sound is carried in the front doors: 3" neodymium-magnet tweeter/midrange units, 1" soft-dome tweeters, and 10" neodymium-magnet woofers. The rear doors sport 6.5" full-range fill speakers, the parcel shelf boasts a 10" self-powered woofer, and there's a third 3" mid/tweeter in the center just to 'fix' the center image."

I asked: "I assume there's a little DSP involved?"

"Oh yes," Feng responded. "You have to be very subtle with that many drivers, but what we really wanted to avoid was the numbers game the automotive audio market uses to proclaim excellence. You know, they have 12 speakers, so we have 21; they have 600W, we have 1200W. We didn't want to overwhelm the cabin and we spent a long time tuning the system."

I was sitting in the driver's seat of the G35 when Feng said this, so I was able to testify that it showed. But he had a question for me. "What should soundstaging sound like in a car?"

"The best soundstaging I ever heard in a car was an almost completely rebuilt IROC with DSP out the wazoo. The soundstage went about as deep as you could see ahead of you. I only heard it in the passenger seat while parked, but I thought: I'm not sure I could drive through this."

Feng nodded. "Yes, that's a consideration, but we fixed this one on a 'cabin average' setting. Neither the driver nor the front passenger gets pinpoint precision, but it's pretty good and it's centered."

"That's the '07 model," Crahan said. "For '08, we have it worked out so that when you're driving solo (or feeling selfish), you can flick a switch and center the image for the driver. The left speaker moves virtually to about 4' outside the left door. Now that's impressive."

Actually, I had no complaints. I'd been impressed by the CD of the Mike LeDonne Quintet, which had the dynamic slam of the original—down to the splashy brass cymbal accents that many hi-fis blunt in playback. I had also been impressed with Billy Drummond's shifting rhythms on "The Mooche" from the Jerome Harris Quintet's Rendezvous (Stereophile STPH013 CD). And Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris" was so there I gave barely a thought to David Geffen (always a plus) . . . and . . . and . . . it was a good thing I was the last demo of the day, because I just kept pulling out discs and listening contentedly.

"Okay," I said at last. "What does it cost?"

"Actually, you can't just buy the hi-fi, it's part of the premium package with the sunroof."

"Which is?"

"About $3000," Crahan smiled.

"And the G35 costs what?"

"It's in the thirties."

Which means the whole car costs about the same as the pair of loudspeakers currently in my listening room. That's reasonable enough to make even this New Yorker contemplate owning a new car.