Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Hans WetzelLast year, The Atlantic published an article revealing that the average American commuter spends about 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. That’s more than a day and a half of crawling along with a maddening lack of rapidity. When the piece was published, my commute was roughly an hour in each direction, which, according to the 2010 US Census, was over twice the national average of 25 minutes. That comes to roughly ten hours a week, or 520 hours -- 21 days -- each year. Those are stupefying figures.

It seems to me that anyone who spends that much time in a car -- or even half that much, for roughly the national average -- should try to make the experience a pleasant one, or at least less offensive. National Public Radio (NPR) was the only thing I could bear to listen to during my commute -- the stereo system in my 2011 BMW 135i sounds about as neutral as the sociopolitical personalities that inhabit the AM band. BMW advertises itself as the manufacturer of “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” a claim for which arguments can be made, though probably only specious ones -- the company doesn’t lavish the same attention on its stereo systems that it does on its vehicles’ famed driving dynamics. My 135i came with BMW’s base stereo system, which consists of four 4” midrange-woofers -- one in each of the coupe’s doors, and two in the rear deck -- and a 6.5” subwoofer buried in the floor under each of the front seats. This tweeterless setup was powered directly by the head unit, and while such a system doesn’t sound all that bad, the liberal amount of equalization on offer probably did more harm than good.

For the average commuter, this basic stereo system is likely sufficient. But I’ve been spoiled by regular exposure to high-quality stereo equipment, and found it increasingly intolerable to listen to. With no tweeters, BMW boosted the treble way up to help motivate those big four-inchers, but the sound was still somewhat dark and muddy, reflective of BMW’s listing treble response only out to 14kHz. The “subs” were also boosted by BMW, resulting in a horridly boomy upper bass and nothing in the way of deep bass.

That’s when I read that a French hi-fi manufacturer was making what they call Integration Plug&Play speaker kits for BMW and Volkswagen vehicles, as well as the Peugeot 207. In the past, having high-end sound in your car meant replacing the head unit, having custom interior work done to accommodate the new drivers, and stuffing sizable subwoofer enclosures into the trunk. Focal decided to try to make this process a lot easier.

Most of the BMW models -- including the 1, 3, and X1 series -- that are compatible with Focal’s Integration products have built-in amplifiers and unequalized head units. Owners of those vehicles can simply purchase Focal’s IFBMW-C coaxial drivers ($599.99 USD) or IFBMW-S component kit ($649.99). In either case, the driver complement is the same: a 1” aluminum-magnesium, inverted-dome tweeter and a 4” Polyglass woofer. A replacement underseat subwoofer, the 8” IFBMW-Sub ($399.99), is also offered. These products are advertised as “user-replaceable,” so I decided to take a punt on two pairs of IFBMW-C coaxials and a pair of IFBMW-Subs. Since my car’s head unit wouldn’t be able to adequately power the Focal drivers, I decided to go with a pair of Focal’s tiny FD Ultra Compact class-D amplifiers each of which retails for $399.99: one puts out 58Wpc into 4 ohms for each of the coaxial speakers, while the other outputs 105Wpc into 4 ohms for each of the subs.

Hans with screwdriver

Short of some basic tools such as a ratchet and T45 Torx-bit socket (to remove the front seats), everything I needed to install the coaxials and the subs was included. I used the Allen wrench and trim-removal tool to remove my door panels, extract the generic-looking stock drivers, and install the more substantially built Focals -- which, true to their name, plugged right into place. Getting under the grilles in the rear deck proved more difficult, while tracking down the right Torx bit and breaking the stock “subwoofer” out of the housing it had been glued into was a bit nerve-racking. In all, though, installation of the six speakers was pretty straightforward and took less than two hours.

And everything sounded worse. Between my head unit’s heavy equalization, and the Focals being more power-hungry than the super-lightweight stock drivers, the sound was very bright, with overpowering upper bass. It also distorted at quite a low volume. I drove around like this for several weeks, until two good friends were able to help me rewire the car, and install the aforementioned Focal FD Ultra Compact class-D amps and JL Audio’s CleanSweep ($299.99) in my trunk. The CleanSweep is a sound processor that automatically flattens the frequency response of the factory head unit -- which as mentioned above, noticeably boosted both the treble and upper bass frequencies in my vehicle -- and outputs a linear signal to the Focal amps. The installation process included a lot of Web searches for wiring diagrams, and two days of installation and tuning. If you don’t have the base stereo -- tweeter grilles on your A-pillar verifies this -- you won’t have to endure this pain.

Beginning with the subs, gone was the awful upper-bass hump I’d lived with since purchasing the car, replaced by low-frequency output that was tighter, stretched deeper, and had far greater agility and detail than the stock units. While there are limits to the sort of bass that two shallow 8” underseat subs can muster, the result in my car was a substantial improvement. Even more profound was the sound quality of the coaxial drivers. The muddy, amorphous vocals I’d grown used to were replaced by a highly articulate and lively midrange, with voices sounding noticeably more detailed and exciting and a significantly more convincing stereo image arrayed before me. The sparkling quality of the Focals’ midrange was quite vibrant, and this continued up into the treble, where the new tweeters were positively crystalline. And the system was able to play far louder while remaining composed than the stock BMW system could ever hope to.

The effort was all easily worthwhile. While the setup was ultimately pretty costly, ringing in at over $3000, the increase in performance was dramatic. Seeing as I plan on keeping the car for a long time, and was also able to preserve the stock appearance of my 135i, I am able to justify it. Had I also had to pay for installation, perhaps I’d feel differently. That said, anyone looking for a hyperclean, incisive sound should look no further. While I did encounter limits when the volume reached uncomfortable heights, with the system beginning to slightly clip, and the subs becoming a bit boomy, I suspect this is down to my wiring job and associated gain issues, something I was unable to square away before publication. Also, the limitations associated with a shallow woofer and underseat installation are not lost on me -- I'd have to put a dedicated sub enclosure in my trunk to ensure clean bass output at super high volumes. Even without the new amps and CleanSweep -- most potential buyers will already have a stereo without fixed EQ, and a built-in amp(s) -- the Focal system offers a sizable increase in performance without having to compromise the car’s interior.

Car audio used to be the province of specialty car audio companies. With Focal entering the arena with their Integration Plug&Play products for BMWs, Volkswagens, and Peugeots, and companies such as Krell partnering with Acura, traditional hi-fi is becoming more and more mainstream. But the best part about the Focal system? It not only sounds great, you can install it yourself, then enjoy the fruits of your labor. Man, is it a great time to be an audiophile.

. . . Hans Wetzel