21st-BMW 750IL Car Audio Review

 

 

 

 

 

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BMW 750IL Car Audio Review
Time To Dump The Big Daddy Caddy


Francis Vale

So, you have your $252,500, 55 watt, Gaku-On, tube amplifier nicely warmed up, along with an Audio Note $17,800 DAC-4 Signature converter being fatly fed from a $15,050 Jadis JD-1 CD transport, and your $147,000 Wilson Grand Slam WAMM Series 7 speakers are happily blasting along, and, uh-oh! You've just read an over the top review of Kimber Kable's "88," the company's $7,500 per yard speaker wire. Hey, face up to it! If those Wilson highs are going to shimmer in all their reviewer-described glory, then you know you have to spring for at least six yards of this kilobuck stuff.

But tell me, Bunkie: Are you going to make that mad, platinum-AmEx-card-rush down to the local high-end audio emporium in your clapped out, 1996, $45,000 Caddy Seville STS? P-u-h-l-e-e-e-z-e! You say you finally want some respect from that feigned-British accent dealer of yours? Then try motoring up in a $95,000, BMW 750IL four door uber sedan, with its Autobahn-crazed, 328 HP V-12, and 14 speaker, 4 subwoofer/440 watt stereo system soothing your sensitive high-end ears. With the 750IL, you get a road-going techno-marvel, a supreme mobile audio experience, and parking valet hero adulation. And you can get all this automotive glory for only about the cost of 20 Gaku-On watts. Heck, by highest of high-end standards, the 750IL represents a true bargain. Moreover, you can even use it for doing useful things (a novel concept in the high end), like hauling around those one-hundred-fifty pound $35,000 Krell Audio Standard amplifier for the front speakers of your $400,000 dedicated home theater system.

The imposing 750IL has a magnetic appeal -- so much so, you may find yourself thinking about climbing out of the worn sweet spot of that sofa, and doing an extended cross country trip; the Bimmer's trunk-mounted, six pack CD changer loaded up with your favorite, green-felt-pen-treated, Radio-Shack-bulk-eraser-degaussed, shiny discs. Francis and Gordana can attest to the awesomeness of this type of audio-asphalt experience, as they made just such a 750IL trek last Thanksgiving, going from Boston, MA to Columbus, OH, to visit some family. The minute these two laid their eyes on the deep gloss, Calypso Red 750IL, with its baby-buttock smooth tan leather interior, they knew this was going to be a memorable review. No sooner had the car been delivered, than Francis quickly popped the imposing hood. He was rewarded with the sight of a dozen, beautifully arched engine intake runners, all anxiously awaiting to help propel Mozart and Mahler in high style down the great American highway. Mercy!

So, on Wednesday, November 27th, with the 750IL's big 25 gallon tank topped off with the Saudi's best, Francis and Gordana exultantly exited the Prudential Tower Apartments, and hit the Mass. Pike. Their joyous feeling lasted all of about sixty minutes, as they soon discovered why the day before Thanksgiving is proclaimed the busiest of the year for travelers. The Interstate highway system from Connecticut through Pennsylvania had been overnight-transformed into the world's largest parking lot. These two states had made sure that every available road construction crew, and then some, were all busily on hand, effectively throttling the high speed flow of holiday traffic down to a tantrum-throwing, molasses crawl. It was then that Francis began to fully appreciate the power of music to soothe the savage breast.

At least the interminable, full-stop delays provided him with an excellent opportunity to figure out the BMW's cockpit controls--all seemingly several hundred of them. This cockpit cornucopia, which would make a 747 pilot envious, contains an awesome set of doo-dads, including a button-knob-dial festooned heating/ventilation/air conditioning system. The seats also have individually adjustable bun warmers, but, naturally, only the driver gets the tactile joy of the heated steering wheel. And what's your choice of electronically-controlled suspension modes; normal, or sport? Do you want the powered sun/privacy screen for the back window up, or down? Then what about the manual, pull-up privacy screens for the rear door windows? (At last, here's your chance to revel in those prurient rock star fantasies, back there in that huge, darkened cabin.)

And how do you want to set-up the on-board computer system before departing? While you're fiddling, make sure you don't accidentally turn off the Automatic Stability Control plus Traction System if it's bad weather. Finally, there is the console switch for the "Park Distance Control," and its dog-maddening ultrasonic sensors embedded in the front and rear bumpers. Inside, progressively shorter beeps frantically warn you that 4,549 pounds of dreadnought BMW is about to ram into that fragile Porsche in back. Thus, even before turning the ignition key, you have a bewildering variety of choices to make. The 750IL is thus a tweak's rolling dream come true. However, this is not the car for obsessive-compulsive high-enders, as their neurotic fiddling will effectively preclude them from even leaving the garage.

But once you've managed to get all these non-essential systems down pat (the two BMW-supplied instructional CD "manuals" are definitely worth listening to), you can move on to the really important stuff--the audio system. The 750IL sports three audio sources, with the tape cassette and radio perched in the console, and the aforementioned six CD changer stowed away in the trunk. The top-of-the dash audio section features the tape cassette deck and its related functions on the left, with a DSP (digital signal processing) system over on the right. The tape deck features the usual forward/reverse/search stuff, Dolby B and C noise suppression, automatic tape bias recognition, and, get this, even a tape cleaning reminder. (Does your $1,000 DAT machine do that?) It also has a mode that automatically skips over empty stretches of tape longer than 12 seconds in length. This last bit is a good example of why you should first read/hear the owner's manual, as the button simply bears the cryptic logo, "SB" (Skip Blank.) Tooling down the Interstate at full 750IL V-12 clip is neither the time nor place to be figuring that one out.

Fortunately, BMW makes it easy to keep your Formula One focus on the on-rushing road, as there are buttons on the steering wheel to control audio volume, and do forward and reverse tape searches. Such heads-up audio control is an absolute necessity in the 750IL, as this big mother is seriously quick. (In a Motor Trend road test, this over two ton behemoth hurtled from 0 to 60 in a blistering 6.4 seconds -- three tenths of a second faster than the new Jaguar XJ8 roadster.) The multi-dexterous steering wheel also has the optional cell phone's control functions built-in, along with several buttons for operating the cruise control, air conditioning, and the wheel rim heater. It even has a horn.

The CD player gets the expected forward/reverse/random title/scan accouterments, and allows you to easily select a disc from the out of sight changer (which quickly pops out with the push of a trunk-located button.) However, if the trunk gets too hot, "High Temp" warning will come on, and the CD player will stop operating until everything cools down. (Helpful Hint: When this warning comes on, it's time to open the trunk, and haul out those hundreds of garage sale LP's you've been squirreling away.) CD volume can also be controlled from steering wheel.

The last audio source component in the Bimmer is the AM/FM radio (with 12 and 16 station presets, respectively). The clever radio will also search out and automatically store 6 FM and 6 AM stations for you. It also has a special weather band that will pickup any weather station broadcasting within the car's reception range. And, naturally, you can vainly search up and down for commercial-free classical radio stations via a steering wheel control.

The various component tone controls offer the typical bass, treble, fader (front/rear adjustment), and balance options, along with a loudness button. For the high-end purists, there is also "Flat" switch that automatically resets everything back to center-of-the-setting defaults. However, for the tweaks, there is the menuing-DSP system and its small, impossible to read in bright light, LCD display panel. With the 750IL, you get three preprogrammed listening environments (concert hall, jazz club, and cathedral), as well as equalizer functions. BMW also gives users the opportunity to make up and store three sound shaping DSP programs of their own. You can choose from room size, room sound pressure levels, and equalizer settings (80 Hz, 200 Hz, 500 Hz, 1 kHz, 2 kHz, 5 kHz, and 12 kHz.) The DSP's LCD panel will conveniently display all your setting choices.

As Francis and Gordana sat in their parking spot, euphemistically known as Connecticut, they had ample opportunity to try out the pre-stored DSP combinations, and test some customized programs. However, some golden-eared road tester who used the car previous had preprogrammed a custom DSP setting that turned out to be just right for almost everything stuffed in the CD changer.

So how did this traveling luxo-rig sound? Well, let's quickly get the bad audio bits out of the way. Although this rolling pleasure palace is stated to have four subwoofers, they are not of the high school Camaro kind. You will not be heard coming four blocks away, with the drawn down rear privacy shades rattling in boom-boom syncopation. Instead, the bass is too polite, too refined, and not at all living up to Francis and Gordana's jammin' expectations. Perhaps this is how BMW intended it for the elegant 750IL. (Maybe the much zippier and youthful M3 sports coupe gets all the funky rapper boom-boom.) Whatever, they soon got over this lowly absence, and instead went on to sample the many other sonic delights this audio system had to offer, which were considerable.

You know how you dropped gazillions on your unabashed high-end dealer, just so you could finally make out what was being said on a particular CD, like maybe Tom Waits' darkly comic "Black Rider?" [Island, 314-518-559-2] Well, plunk down your 95 large for the 750IL, and guess what they are saying no more. The system's transparency on vocals was incredible. On Black Rider, the speaking voice of William S. Burroughs, the novelist/poet who wrote elliptical, erotic paeans to a lifetime of drug-crazed experiences, came through in all its gravely glory. Francis and Gordana had heard this particular CD on some other big buck home systems, and never heard this kind of detailed vocal nuance.

Upper mids and highs were also well treated, and were never strident. Case in point, "Ekitundo Ekisook" (first movement) of the Ugandan composer, Justinian Tamusuza. Played by the ever eclectic Kronos Quartet on "Pieces of Afric" [Elektra Nonesuch, 79275-2], this CD is an African composers showcase, featuring works from such countries as Morocco, Gambia, and other such exotic, far off places (all very much in keeping with going to distant Columbus, OH.)

The string work of the quartet (two violins, viola and cello) on this piece had a joyous, ever moving, percussive quality. The tangible, emotional immediacy of such small group work was considerably heightened when played in the plush confines of the BMW's leather covered cabin.

Large scale orchestral pieces were also a definite blast over the more than baker's dozen speakers. Case in foot stompin' point, "Big Band Basie," with Clark Terry and Frank Weiss, and the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble [Reference Recordings, RR-63CD]. This terrific Prof. Johnson (HDCD) recording had the 750IL's inhabitants exuberantly tossing their heads, and happily squirming their seat-warmed booties, probably to the puzzlement of some quickly-receding in-the-mirror truckers. The Bimmer's audio system, with its 440 watts, could easily be cranked up to lose your hearing levels, without any obvious strain.

A soundstage in a car is obviously not the same as the one back home. The left channel is by the driver, and the right is on the passenger side, so unless you perch your butt on the center armrest, and acrobatically lean way back, achieving 3D imaging is not exactly in the car cards. Of course, you can always fiddle with the fader and balance controls if you are cruising around alone, or are in a misanthropic mood towards your passengers. (A really clever DSP system that wrapped the sound field around just a solo driver would be a definite automobile plus.) But with fourteen speakers stashed in just about every imaginable cabin cranny, the soundstage was more akin to a surround processor-enhanced rig than a stereo system. The effect was one of being immersed in the performance, as opposed to looking on from afar.

Sometimes, it got a little spooky. On a number of occasions during the trip, Gordana and Francis turned to each other and asked, "Huh? What was that? What did you say?" as seemingly disembodied, startlingly clear words and sounds would magically appear far off to the left or right or deep in back. Maybe the best instance of this occurred when they were playing "Deep Forest, [Sony, 57840], another world music CD which takes samples of chants from natives of Cameroon, Burundi, Senegal, and of Pygmies, and synthesizes them into a tonal collage that is rhythmically rambunctious. (OK, OK, so going to Columbus is not like going to exotic Africa, but all the more reason to musically spice things up.) On one merrily-through-the-woods-we-go detour, this CD's jungle birds had Gordana looking out the window, trying to see where the sounds were coming from deep in the Pennsylvania forest.

In any event, Francis had to forget about the birds, because he had to concentrate on the driving, which, in the 750IL, was a truly remarkable experience. The interior is also deathly quiet, with minimal road noise intruding on your musical reveries. This hushed environment is great for listening, but a killer when it comes to speed trap ambushes. This big BMW will silently sneak up way, way past legally posted speeds, and neither the driver nor passenger will ever know it.. Francis and Gordana were very happy they had along a Bel-Tronics, Ltd. radar/laser detector, which ran off internal battery power, so there was no long, messy cord to get fouled on the console controls.

Fifteen traffic-fighting-cursing-finally-resigned-to-their-fate hours later, with the 750IL's extraordinary blue-white, xenon headlamps burning a huge hole through the unfamiliar highway darkness, and Neil Young's soulful "Old Ways" [Mobile Fidelity, UDCD 663] now on continual, wistful repeat, Francis and Gordana finally pulled into German Town in Columbus, Ohio. It was 3:00 AM, and the trip computer was saying this big beast had averaged an incredible 19 miles per gallon. Even more incredibly, neither one felt too worse for the wear, even after sitting in the car for all that time. Their amazing lack of pretzel-bending discomfort was perhaps the best testimony to this BMW's designers.

And the trip home? Well, when they left Columbus, the roads were nearly empty. So, at last, Francis and Gordana finally got a chance to find out why all the gas station attendants were making such a fuss about that big V12.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Copyright 1996, Francis Vale, All Rights reserved

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