By all means, there’s little to criticize about a twin-turbocharged V-8, 560-horsepower super-sedan that hits 0-60 in 3.7 seconds, boasts a potential top speed of 200 mph, and most importantly, wears the BMW roundel on its nose. But it turns out, the new M5 uses something called Active Sound to amplify the sound from the engine—in essence, playing the engine noise sound over the car’s speakers. Scandalous! What sorcery is this, Bavaria?
Listen to the video below. The difference isn’t dramatic, but it’s still there, faint and subtle.
Does this count as cheating? Perhaps. I once reviewed a gadget called the Soundracer. It plugs into your cigarette outlet and plays the sounds of a considerably better car over your car speakers. Works great for 1999 Honda Accords…and by “works great,” I mean it didn’t at all. At best, it sounded like a flooded tractor engine being washed away during the Boston Molasses Disaster, and at worst we simply ripped it out and used it to play the Beastie Boys. Luckily it was a gift, because it was the worst $37.99 that I never spent.
Mercifully, BMW’s system is a touch more sophisticated than this.
BMW is using their system to pump up the volume when it figures enthusiasts want to hear it—i.e., when driving like they stole their own car—but to provide a quiet luxury car feel the rest of the time. Yet other carmakers are using active sound management to minimize noise. Acura and Cadillac are two companies that use similar systems: the Cadillac ATS, for example, uses a system developed by Bose generates a signal that cancels out what microphones around the cabin are picking up. It sounds creepy—like it might be used to broadcast secret signals, such as overthrowing the Illuminati and ordering the Mud Pie Mojo every time you’re at Coldstone Creamery—but it’s the same proprietary technology Bose has used in its noise-cancelling headphones that have been a staple of air travelers everywhere for years.
And yet, the ironic part about the BMW M5 is that not only is the car entirely capable of producing such sound on its own—560 horsepower through a titanium exhaust all but guarantees a mellifluous note—it’s that the Germans saw fit to introduce an entire level of complexity through, unsurprisingly, their love of complicated electronics. Some cars such as the Maserati GranTurismo and new Porsche 911 feature acoustic baffles that open up under judicious application of the right pedal, which is an entirely mechanical and almost laughably simple system contained entirely within the exhaust. Wherefore art thou, Active Sound? No electronic wizardry needed there—and we know how German electronics become fiendishly complicated when they go in 5 years’ time.
The BMW M5 is a lovely car, but in true BMW tradition, applying the word “Active” to the front of anything will always raise suspicion. (See, “Active Steering,” “Active Cupholders,” “Active Read A Book While Driving And Never Use The Turn Signals.” Some of those might not be real.) Rip out most of the sound deadening, get rid of this acoustical silliness, and let the car speak for itself, quite literally—it’s the Ultimate Driving Machine, not the Ultimate Active Sound Fascimile Amplification Machine. That’s how the game should work.