Good vibrations

Jaguar has teamed up with a British loudspeaker specialist to give drivers the ultimate car audio experience.

When luxury car maker Jaguar launches its brand new XF model into the world market this month the vehicle will sport the Bowers & Wilkins badge prominently on the inside. Bowers & Wilkins has supplied the car's loudspeakers and, for Jaguar, the audio system inside the vehicle is a key selling point.

This creative union between two historic companies - born out of their relationship as members of the UK's Automotive Engineering Society - represents a new level of groundbreaking car design. The interior of the XF has been developed around the needs of the audio system, making it, Jaguar says, the first vehicle to put the sound system at the heart of the design. This replaces the traditional method of simply cutting holes for speakers into a pre-established interior.

Matt Jones, of Jaguar's electrical engineering team, explains: "We designed [the interior] with Bowers & Wilkins from the very start. Instead of the car maker cutting metal and adding speakers, we actually worked with the car's designers and the audio team to make sure the metal fits round the speakers."

One benefit of bringing the two companies together was to work on integrating the right speakers with the best locations - a key consideration in any audio set-up. "I think this is an automotive first to the extent that we have done it," Jones says. "For example, with the subwoofer in the boot, we felt that this speaker had to be big. So we tailored the wheel well to get this speaker in the right position."

For Bowers & Wilkins, the Jaguar project was part of its quest for sound perfection. John Bowers founded the speaker company over 40 years ago, with an ambition to create 'true sound'. The factory remains on its original site in Worthing, and the company also boasts a dedicated research facility nearby - a unit dubbed the 'university of sound'.

For Jaguar, the arrival of its first new model in several years meant an opportunity to look at the interior of the vehicle as a special audio experience, in anticipation of rising consumer demand. This work started with the concept car the C-XF, which preceded the XF. In the early 2000s Jaguar decided to approach Bowers & Wilkins to work on the idea of a perfectly designed interior audio system.

Jaguar saw Bowers & Wilkins as sharing its approach to engineering, design and innovation, and able to provide the sort of top-notch audio entertainment the car maker was seeking.

"People's expectations of the auto experience are growing every day," says Ed Willis, Jaguar's principal designer for the XF model's interior. "After all, people are getting much better audio and entertainment systems in their homes, and they should expect the same from their cars."

Willis says the interior design process was far from easy. "With the C-XF we faced a challenge. To get a 'perfect' sound, there are only certain places you can place the speakers - all 14 of them - inside the car.

"We got a lot of grey hairs trying for this perfection and fighting with other demands such as safety. With Bowers & Wilkins's help we were hoping that, one day, we'd be best in class [for audio]. And now I think, with the XF, we've created a theatre of light and sound."

The 'light' refers to the XF's touch-screen audio-control system - not to any pop-up flat-screen TVs. But it is the growth of the home-cinema experience, with people commonly having top-quality surround sound in their living rooms, that has partly driven Jaguar's tie-up with Bowers & Wilkins.

Martin Lindsay, head of automotive at Bowers & Wilkins, says the project was a major test for his engineers - and this is the company that provides the speakers for the world-famous Abbey Road recording studios in London.

"One of the most difficult environments to achieve good sound in is, of course, the car. Apart from the noise and reflective surfaces, driver and passengers are almost always seated 'off axis' from the sound system. We saw the XF as the latest challenge for us - it is the natural extension of what we deliver in the home."

Complex design

Lindsay gives a snapshot of how the complex engineering and design process was worked out: "[Getting involved from the design stage of the new car] meant that we knew that we were able to contribute ideas from the start - from speaker configuration to realising the components to realising the system in prototypes. We went through a wide number of components to arrive at a solid starting point with our ideal. This meant measurement but also using our ears.

"So we whittled the components down until we had our 'eureka' moment and a particular speaker was selected. We then 'tagged' this [performance] as our reference point, to ensure that each part meets the performance it is supposed to. This is the quality assurance we bring to the car.

"The same engineers that tune the speakers that go into Abbey Road studios also sat in the XF, fine-tuning it. In Jaguar's words, this also involved 'winning the back seat' - refining one passenger's experience without degrading another's. This attention to detail is the difference between a good and a great sound system. The XF has been an exciting challenge for us."

Bowers & Wilkins doesn't have its own engineers permanently on the Jaguar production line, but these engineers do conduct quality assurance checks of the audio components in a random sample of new XFs, which are judged against the 'gold reference' version of each component that is kept under lock and key at the Bowers & Wilkins site.

This gold-standard-reference approach applies to all Bowers & Wilkins speakers made at its UK facility. Each new speaker is put through a testing regime that checks it against what is considered to be the best-quality sound. Factory manager Dave Ford explains: "We select a speaker that's absolutely right and keep it as a master reference. We send the masters over to our R&D site for checking. But it's the engineers at the factory that do the quality control."

The ranges of 'perfect' master speakers are kept carefully stacked on shelves inside a room on the factory floor. Ford is one of the very few people with a key to the permanently-locked cupboard. He says the masters are the result of the painstaking work of the innovators at the company's research establishment at the nearby town of Steyning.

"Steyning is a true research environment and they have little to do with manufacturing. Their remit is to design top-quality speakers, and we at the factory can't call on them other than sending the masters for checking or sending our engineers there to sort something out," Ford says.

The launch of the Jaguar XF is also an opportunity for Bowers & Wilkins to celebrate its heritage. The company reached its 40th anniversary in 2006 and was planning to launch a new range of high-end speakers to coincide with the date. But such is the company's obsession with quality, according to one insider, that it had to drop the proposed name of the new product, 'Signature 40'. The speaker, launched last year, is instead called Signature Diamond.

And this is perhaps a more appropriate name because these limited-edition speakers, which retail at around £13,000 a pair, have a tweeter dome made of real diamond sheeting that is the result of a unique collaboration with Element6, the industrial division of de Beers. The dome is powder-coated with a fine layer of titanium. The result is an extremely rigid but also light cone, which is then housed in a mounted pod made of a casing that has been carved with Italian marble.

Top of the range

The company's most expensive range, however, is the Nautilus, which retails at a cool £44,000 a pair - real Premiership footballer territory. This speaker is not tested electronically, like all the other products: each brand-new pair of Nautilus speakers is given an exclusive audition by the expert ears of one of Bowers & Wilkins's senior acoustic engineers - the ultimate master standard, as far as the company is concerned.

And this level of attention is mirrored throughout the factory, with each speaker cone and casing being hand-built by operators. Bowers & Wilkins's secret formula is its patented resin that is applied to the 'Kevlar' cones to produce the quality of performance required by the engineers. Kevlar is a soft fabric produced by Du Pont that can be cut and shaped into cones. The application of the Bowers & Wilkins resin is what makes them extra special, the company claims. The wooden casing of all the speakers produced at Worthing are made in Denmark. Bowers & Wilkins bought a Danish cabinet company to ensure that it could provide the quality of moulded wood casing it needs for its products.

As for offshoring its manufacturing facility to low-cost centres overseas, Bowers & Wilkins decided that it could not ensure the quality controls it requires for its high-end speakers. But for its range of entry-level speakers - which, for example, have plastic casing - it established a factory in China a couple of years ago, sending its own personnel, and shipping out equipment to ensure that the factory there mirrors the Worthing site's operations as closely as possible.

This has proved successful, says Bowers & Wilkins, although it has no plans for further relocations. The Worthing site, which employs 400 people, underwent a 'lean' manufacturing transformation in the early 2000s, and Dave Ford says it has taken the 'best' bits from lean and agile processes to ensure efficiency in an environment that requires labour-intensive assembly of products.

Bowers & Wilkins competes with overseas rivals such as Bang & Olufsen and Bose, and market data put Bowers & Wilkins as the leading loudspeaker maker in terms of value share in Europe. It is also the world's leading exporter of loudspeakers.

The move into car speakers is a new departure which, it hopes, will add to its prestige branding. For Bowers & Wilkins, which set up its new automotive unit in preparation for the Jaguar project, the tie-up with the car company fits its 'exclusive' brand strategy.

For Jaguar, the relationship with Bowers & Wilkins works on a practical engineering level. And Bowers & Wilkins might wish to boast that its contribution helped the XF to win the What Car? Car of the Year award. Jaguar, whose American owner Ford has put it up for sale, may be facing uncertain times. But the XF is promising to give it and British manufacturing a welcome boost.

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