Date:29 March 2017
Before those airplane headphones, Bose made the greatest factory car stereo system ever. We visited its lab to see and hear how engineers regained that title 33 years later.
The blue Seville sets off a shock wave of nostalgia. It’s from the early ’80s, with a bonnet that stretched into the horizon and a stubby boot that makes it look like the car just got rear-ended. My grandfather had one when it was new. Much later, it was handed down to me. I took that Seville on a road trip to Atlantic City, floating down the highway at 120 km/h, running out of fuel when the digital fuel gauge proved itself optimistic by eight litres. Mechanically, that car was a nadir for Cadillac, General Motors and human civilisation. But its car stereo, with separate amplifiers at each speaker, was something else. At a time when factory car stereos sounded like those Hallmark cards that play music when you open them, the Seville had the deep bass and volume levels of a great home hi-fi system. Those four speakers forever changed car audio.
Present day: an ’83 Seville is here at Bose’s Automotive Lab Facility – ALF, for short – in Stow, Massachusetts. A few years ago, the company took an interest in its own history and bought a few cherry Sevilles from the early years of its partnership with Cadillac. Those first versions were essentially a retrofit. Cadillac locked the Seville design before Bose created its sound system. “When we took apart the doors on the ’83, we saw that the assembly-line workers used a blowtorch to cut out each opening for the speaker enclosures,” says Bud MacLellan, Bose engineering support manager. “A couple of years later, Cadillac was making different door panels for the Bose cars.”
This time, Bose engineers designed the new Panaray system’s bass enclosures to fit the 2016 CT6 floor plan, requiring collaboration with Cadillac early on in the car’s development. The speakers, 34 in total, are mounted in just about every corner of the interior, including the front headrests and the rear centre console. “Most high-end automotive sound systems would have one of these bass modules,” says Joe McCabe, audio systems technical lead. “This car has two. Plus a ten-inch subwoofer in the rear deck.” Bose isn’t messing around, and it can’t afford to. It’s been decades since Cadillac and Bose first popularised high-end factory audio in automobiles, and today’s car market is glutted with snooty options – the more obscure the name on the speaker grille, the better. In the weird world of audio-phile one-upmanship, brand recognition is actually a liability, which is why Bose came up with a new name for the CT6’s system. No disrespect to the Bose sound you can get in a Mazda3, but the R60 000 Panaray is something different. This is Bose reasserting its pre-eminence, the same way Cadillac hopes to do with the CT6 itself.
Before I get a listen, though, I look around the ALF. This is where prototypes are built so that the decision-makers at Audi or Chevrolet can hear a new system before it goes on a vehicle’s list of available options. Inside this large metal warehouse, machines make speaker grilles that are then painted to match interiors. There’s a giant lathe in the woodworking shop. Bose has shrouded the cars, keeping them from the prying eyes of the visiting journalist. Go around a corner and down a hallway and you get to the Critical Listening Room. This is where engineers evaluate the equipment that ends up in your car.
The room has no parallel walls, which prevents echoes or standing sound waves. A pair of “bass traps”, cutouts 1,52 metres deep by 3,65 metres high and hidden by acoustic panels, prevent bass notes from lingering. All that means is you hear the speakers, not the room’s acoustics. Sitting there, listening to a song, it sounds like there’s a centre channel, or beam of audio, coming from right in front of you. There’s not. It’s stereo coming from left and right. But this kind of precision can cause an eerie effect called a phantom centre, like the voices are coming from dead ahead.
Back on the shop floor, I climb into the ’83 Seville to get reacquainted. It sounds as good as I remember back in the ’90s when I was cranking Wu-Tang Clan on my way to Jersey. Then I climb into the 2016 CT6. I pair my phone with the car and summon Wu-Tang on Apple Music. I’m not sure whether I’m the first to test the Panaray’s 20-channel amp with the track “Triumph”, but I’ll bet I am. And even when the source material is Ol’ Dirty Bastard growling over a bass line, this is the most precise car stereo I’ve ever heard, whether you’re sitting in front or back. Inside this car, ODB is alive. Once again, the best sound system you can buy is a Bose in a Cadillac.
By Ezra Dyer
Bose CEO is A Tinkerer!
Bob Maresca, Bose CEO, had an idea to improve his golf game: mount two LEDs, one red, one green, on top of a driver. Connect the LEDs to a nine-volt battery and a motion-sensing switch. On the downswing, your eye picks up the streaks of light from the LEDs, revealing whether your form correctly squares the club face. Great idea! Maresca figured he’d take his creation on a trip to Pinehurst, North Carolina. To protect it during the flight, he covered the club head with a coffee can – one that had been used to store paint thinner – and checked his golf bag at the airport. Shortly after he boarded, a state trooper escorted him off the plane. The battery, wires, lights and metal can off-gassing volatile organic compounds meant Maresca had some explaining to do. “Luckily,” he says, “the head of TSA at Logan Airport plays golf.”