Test Drive: BMW 650i Gran Coupe with Bang & Olufsen Sound System

Deciding whether to spring for an expensive sound-system upgrade when shopping for a new car can be a frustrating experience when you have no idea what you’ll actually be getting for your hard-earned money. Looking at pictures of a speaker grille is hardly convincing when the price tag for an upgraded system can be upwards of $6000. How often do you get the opportunity to spend literally hours in a potential car listening to and evaluating the sound system before you order your build? Recently, I did just that in the 2016 BMW 650i xDrive Gran Coupe with the upgraded Bang & Olufsen sound system. Here's what I heard.

The BMW 650i Gran Coupe is a luxurious four-door sedan with a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 with intelligent all-wheel drive. It has built-in Wi-Fi and a wireless charging pocket to keep your phone connected and topped off at all times. It has BMW’s iDrive system with Spotify and Pandora integration. The standard audio package is a Harman Kardon Surround Sound system with a 600-watt amplifier and 16 speakers, including two subwoofers under the front seats. Pretty nice setup, so is it worth it to upgrade to the B&O system?

The B&O system is a 16-speaker, 1200-watt system (although the BMW build page indicates it's a 12-speaker package) that also uses subwoofers under the front seats. Upon starting the engine, a center-channel tweeter pops up out of the top of the dashboard with a diffuser meant to aim the sound back into the vehicle. The price for the upgrade? It adds a hefty $3,700 to the sticker price. Not so easy to check that box when you’re building your dream car, especially if you can’t find a car with the upgraded system to evaluate before you place your order.

I evaluated the B&O system both with the engine on while parked, and also on a test drive to evaluate the speed-dependent volume control. My first impression of the sound system was that it provided a warm, dark sound that is a good fit for a luxury car of this caliber. On the other hand, drivers who prefer a bright, airy sound will probably not care for the tuning of this vehicle. The sound of the bass is good, but it could have a touch more punch; it seems to have impact but in a narrow range, and is a bit restrained. Due to the subwoofer location under the seats, the bass vibrates the seat, even though the subwoofers are mounted to the body of the car, not the seats. If you’re listening to a bass-heavy dance track, the vibrations are fun; on a more acoustic recording, they can be a bit much. Also, the vibrations are sometimes disconnected from the actual bass performance – the sound isn’t as strong as the seat vibrations imply. The midrange has a natural balanced sound, but is a little pulled back, especially in the upper midrange. There is also a brightness from the speaker located in the upper doors, but the rest of the sound is veiled. Overall, the system plays very loud, and the sound does brighten up at extremely high volume.

There isn’t much rear fill from the back of the vehicle, so the sound is very small, and it has a narrow soundstage, focused right over the steering wheel. The soundstage creates a “bubble” of sound around the driver. It gives the impression that the 650i is a small sports car, which is interesting, although it detracts from the overall listening experience. Some listeners might like a small cocoon of sound, but in a big luxury car, most listeners would expect a bigger, more wide-open sound.

The location of the speakers in the B&O system is somewhat problematic. There is a tweeter located in the door panel near the driver’s left ear with a slightly harsh sound; this is especially true for shorter drivers sitting closer to the dash. This harshness localizes the sound to this speaker and detracts from an open, spacious image. Also, the center-channel tweeter is blocked by the center-dash display panel for all but very tall drivers. The tweeter and its diffuser don’t provide enough localization to create a sense of width and depth.

The BMW 650i has only one speed-dependent volume setting. It has a smooth increase on acceleration and a slight delay ramping down on deceleration; overall, it allows a greater ratio of ambient noise relative to stereo sound. This is a somewhat louder, aggressive car with more road noise and engine sounds than other luxury vehicles, so hearing its V8 isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

FM radio playback is okay, but too many stations had a very narrow sound stage, and the AM signal was surprisingly rolled-off and muffled. The car I listened to did not have its satellite radio activated, but it should be noted that BMW is using the Sirius platform, which will not sound as good as cars using either the Sirius/XM platform or the XM platform. (You can check which platform is in your car by looking it up here: SiriusXM Vehicle Availability.

Unlike other systems with multiple surround-sound options, the B&O system has one mode called “Expanded.” With the Expanded mode engaged, the sound stage gets very strange. Instead of making the sound bigger, it creates a very small, focused sound. The bass moves forward, and the sense of height is diminished – almost the opposite of expanded, actually.

When buying a car sight unseen, it’s hard to know what options are worth springing for, and which are best left off. For some people, getting the very best sound in their car is worth any price. The problem with the Bang & Olufsen system on the BMW 650i Gran Coupe is that the base system is really very, very good, and the B&O system doesn’t bring much added value, unless you happen to prefer the very individualistic nature of this car's tuning. With a vehicle starting price of $94,200 (MSRP), you might consider spending your extra cash on options such as the Night Vision and ACC and Active Driving Assistant.

brenro's picture

I haven't heard this before.

John Sully's picture

That is not that bad. I have a 2000 Subaru and I spent around $2K for the system I have. Rockford 4x200 amp for the door speakers, Soundstream 600W monoblock for the JL 12w0 sub in the back, 4 Focal coaxes in the doors, mid range Kenwood Excelon head. Thinking about getting Focal components for the fronts, but the thing sounds damn good and integrates with my iPod quite nicely. The car has depreciated in value somewhat since I installed the thing, but it has not yet reached the point where the stereo is worth more than the car!