By Eric Yang
on 10.24.12
Photo by Eric Yang

It doesn’t feel like that long ago when adding aftermarket amplifiers, separates, and elephantine subwoofers (remember the Bazooka?) seemed like the right thing to do to your car. We’ve come a long way since then; and when we checked in with the families and friends at the office, not one could even recall the last time they cared about single-DIN nonsense.

Today, manufacturers outfit their cars directly from the factory with scientifically tuned systems designed to maximize every last detail of the car-listening environment right down to the seating materials. But look behind those panels, and the same essential basics remain: woofers and tweeters in the door (tucked somewhere between the a-pillar and the door handles), a subwoofer in the trunk or rear deck lid and maybe — if you sprung for the upgraded system — a center speaker. Separate amplification, advanced sound processing and little silver logos adorned on speaker grilles round out the essential advancements in today’s car audio. The sound is better, the mirrors don’t rattle, and nothing resets if you happen to run into the need to jump your car.

But what else is going on? We may not think about our audio systems (it’s simply so easy to just check off “multimedia package”), but beyond the USB port, iPhone integration and surround-sound, what is being advanced in the inseparable pairing of cars and music, and who’s doing it?

Turns out it’s Mercedes-Benz. And guess what? It’s not just the coveted mid-range they’re obsessing over — though they’ve put plenty of thought into that, too. It’s the bass. And they’ve found a new direction, literally, to deliver what amounts to a dazzling auditory blitzkrieg. They call it FrontBass.

To test out FrontBass technology, Mercedes-Benz invited us to listen to a special playlist. But this wasn’t just any ol’ mix in any ol’ listening environment. First, we made a trip to Skywalker Ranch (more on that another day, nerds) to sit down with Leslie Ann Jones, Director of Music Recording and Scoring for Skywalker Sound — a woman who has captained so many iconic projects that it’s tough to find a place to start. She walked us through a specifically tuned mix of 25 (rock, pop and classical) tracks by Grammy award-winner Herbert Waltl. Each song, some of which contained 200 separate tracks, were remastered from the ground up specifically for the purposes of the mix. Impressive.

As for the technology, we begin with a question. What were you doing seven years ago? Well, if you were the sound and structural engineers at Mercedes-Benz, you were thinking about how, over a half decade from now (then), you could have finished developing a way to integrate the most immediately impactful element of great sound (the bass) into one of your flagship cars. And that’s exactly what Mercedes did with the new SL-class roadster.

Just like a cinema, the Mercedes system douses its listeners in sound from the front. FrontBass integrates subwoofers into the front foot wells of the car by cleverly using the car’s frame structured as subwoofer enclosures. Using the space within the two longitudinal front members, Mercedes was able to extract enough area for the subwoofer’s optimal resonance. We can get into the technical specifics here like rolloff and frequencies, but the fact of the matter is this: FrontBass sounds good. Really good.

Some of you might be thinking that it doesn’t matter where the subwoofer is because bass tends to be omnidirectional, and that axiom still holds true. But what makes the experience of FrontBass interesting is the sense of where that impact comes from. Everything we do inside a moving vehicle — driving, seeing, even listening — is geared toward the forward direction. While FrontBass may seem like a simple exercise of moving a subwoofer from the aft to the forward cabin, it’s much more than that. Paired with a revised alignment of the other speakers (now at ear level), and the funneling of bass out of the footwell, there’s a heightened sense of alacrity. That is, everything sounds far more alive. And though we didn’t walk into our test waving SPL tools, we have auditioned our fair share of these systems, and can attest that audio reproduction from FrontBass is downright remarkable. You don’t know why everything sounds so great, but you can feel it.

Of course, driving around on the Pacific Coast Highway in the all-new Mercedes SL — top down of course — could have had a little to do with that.








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