Audio Road Test: Bowers & Wilkins in the 2018 BMW 5 Series
The BMW M550i xDrive is not lacking in appreciable attributes. This 5 Series range-topper has a pulsating twin-turbo V8, a performance-oriented all-wheel-drive system and amenities that range from 20-way power seats to available night vision. One of its best features, though, is how it can sound. And I'm not talking about the rumble of its engine, rather its optional Bowers & Wilkins audio system.
While high-end sound systems are nothing new in premium cars, Bowers & Wilkins systems are relatively fresh to the automotive scene. In fact, you may only know of this British audiophile company from its high-end headphones and home speakers, if you've even heard of Bowers & Wilkins at all. One listen, though, and the music appreciators among us will likely never forget.
Bowers & Wilkins' roots date to 1965 in the world of home audio, but it's only been since 2007 that the company started collaborating with automakers, first with Jaguar in its sedans. In the decade since, Bowers & Wilkins has teamed with Maserati, McLaren, Volvo, and now BMW. Bowers' first system for the German luxury maker arrived in 2015 for the flagship BMW 7 Series sedan. Then it became available in another BMW model this year with the introduction of the all-new 5 Series. In both, the speakers—specifically the tweeters—are literally made from diamond, which Bowers says enables extreme clarity.
Immersive, crystal-clear sound
I don't have the technical chops to understand why a material usually found on ring fingers would translate to better sound, but my ears can attest: Whatever Bowers & Wilkins is doing, it works. Consisting of 16 speakers and 10 amplification channels pumping out up to 1,400 watts, the Bowers & Wilkins system in the BMW is mesmerizing.
Beyond its sheer power, the system is notable for its clarity, natural sound and detail. Piano notes sound as if someone is tickling the ivories right there in the car. Vocals are pure and life-like, and drum beats resonate with depth but no distortion. Perhaps most telling is that, even played at loud volumes, the music reproduced on this system doesn't sound fatiguing. It's just enthralling.
It plays just about everything
One of the biggest ironies of today's widening availability of factory-installed audiophile-grade systems in cars is that they can't play what is still one of the best-sounding music mediums: the compact disc. The rationale is understandable: Many drivers today simply stream music via Bluetooth from their phone or iPod rather than fuss with some old-fashioned disc that is limited to maybe a dozen songs. Doing away with a CD player saves money and frees up space. But for audio lovers like me who still have thousands of CDs, it's like watching a beloved creature go extinct.
Thankfully, this Bowers & Wilkins system retains a CD player, and it rightfully sounds fantastic. A bonus is that in addition to playing CDs, the unit can rip them onto a built-in hard drive.
Just as surprisingly, I was elated to see (or more literally, hear) that the system also plays FLAC files. FLAC, short for Free Lossless Audio Codec, is a type of digital music file that can be ripped from a CD and put on a USB drive or phone, similar to an MP3, but with no loss of audio quality. Because of this, FLAC files have higher sample rates and sound far better than MP3s. Played through the BMW 5 Series Bowers & Wilkins unit, they sound excellent.
In addition to playing CDs and FLAC files, the Bowers & Wilkins unit plays the more popular MP3 files, streams music from a phone, and of course offers AM/FM/satellite radio. And as with CDs, in addition to playing tunes from a USB thumb drive, it can also import them into the car's hard drive. One more arrow in this system's quiver is its HD Radio tuner, which grabs the free, better-sounding broadcasts from compatible stations.
Lastly, I appreciate the visual data that accompanies the music being played. For CDs and music stored on thumb drives, the BMW's 10.25-inch screen shows the album cover, and even showed artwork for FM stations based on category, such as pop, easy listening and even spiritual.
A one-of-a-kind feature, and what it all costs
Another interesting feature in this system ties in with BMW's new Gesture Control. This is another innovation that debuted in the 7 Series and has made its way into the 5, and it allows you to control some functions like changing volume and tracks by waving a finger. To turn up the volume, for example, you rotate your finger clockwise. It works but takes some practice. For the most part I preferred using the volume knob or buttons on the steering wheel.
The Bowers & Wilkins systems are premium options, and that is reflected in their price, which ranges from $3,400 in the M550i to $4,200 in the lower 5 Series trims. That is a significant step up from the $875 Harman Kardon audio system that is optional in the other 5 Series models (and standard in the top-line M550i).
Is it worth the cost? If you're only a casual music listener who is happy enough with the sound that comes out of, say, the earphones included with your phone, then probably not. But if you consider yourself an audiophile or want to acquire a system that would instantly let you become one, the Bowers & Wilkins system is money well spent. And whether you're blazing down the highway, stuck in traffic or simply running errands, this high-end automotive audio system is something that can bring enjoyment every moment you're in the car.