We all know car audio is important - more important than ever, perhaps. You only need look at the effort put into systems like the Naim package found in Bentleys, Bowers & Wilkins in Volvos and Porsche's Burmester audio to see that. There's a Bang & Olufsen option in a Ford Fiesta. Where a stereo upgrade used to be a new head unit, the world is a lot more sophisticated nowadays. And lucrative. And, it should be said, better - there are some truly awesome in car entertainment systems out there.
The 335i does not have an awesome audio system. Even when new, the standard BMW audio would have been crap for the asking price. In familiar BMW tradition, the best bits (a Harmon Kardon upgrade, in this case) were left on the options list for customers to choose. And pay for. My car is pretty light on options, but I've always felt sticking with the standard stereo was daft, however frustrating it may have been to hand over more to BMW. Yes, it connects devices via Bluetooth and USB, the screen is good and the menus clear, but the sound quality leave a lot to be desired. The bass is weak, the treble lacks definition and even the volume isn't that great. Forget turning up to 11 - the 3 Series feels like it's giving a 6 at best.
Step forward Pete Huet, of Huets In-Car Specialists in Shoreham, otherwise known on PH as Droopsnootpete (guess what's in his previously owned). Now the owner of an Alpina D3, he had some recommendations for improving the BMW's shoddy audio. It'll come as no surprise to other owners that Pete does quite a bit of work in upgrading 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Series and the like - the standard set ups really are as bad as you think.
So, out went the factory speakers and subs. In their place went some BLAM (Bonneville Laboratory and More) kit, a French company founded by Guy Bonneville in 2013 after 23 years at Focal-JMlab and distributed in the UK by Incartec. In fact, BLAM has a dedicated BMW upgrade (told you everyone knew they were bad), comprising 20cm underseat woofers (replacing the standard 16cm ones), a four-channel amp in the boot and higher quality speakers in the front doors. The only visual change is the tweeters by the A-pillar that were blank before in my car, BLAM items but with BMW mounts to ensure a better fit.
Now is the point to defer to Pete's greater knowledge, before I merely tell you the new stereo sounds well good. He also cited a lack of power and bass as well as "flat" treble; the new subs improve bass as they're larger, which allows more excursion (which is how for the cone moves). The tweeters and speakers are there to improve staging and imaging, which to the layman is the balance left to right and perceived sound quality. According to Pete the new mids in the doors are "more 'open' sounding", with tweeters adding the conspicuously absent treble.
The results, even to someone with very little knowledge, are extraordinary. I feel like one of the Pimp My Ride owners, giddy with an incredible sound system vastly better than existed before. The audio is transformed, the sound now richer, deeper, and clearer - as well as much louder when required. But it's never harsh or overwhelming, either, for which a bit of extra sound deadening is surely to thank. I hadn't realised just how loud I'd cranked Charli XCX up until I shouted at the 5 Series that had carved me up (damn BMW drivers) and couldn't hear my voice...
But the joy of a properly good audio system is that it improves every situation, not just those where you're making a 2am karaoke joint of a 3 Series Touring. Podcasts are improved because of the clarity (same for sports broadcasts), anything that's bass-heavy sounds how it always should have, and there's detail in old favourites that I'd forgotten about with the shoddy standard system. I don't tend to listen to audiobooks in the car, but the work of Pete and his team (thanks Chris and Julian!) may have changed that.
Alongside the speaker upgrade, a CarPlay module was fitted to the 335i. For the pre-facelift 3 Series of this era (so 2012 to 2016), that requires hardware and software; for the LCI models, it's just software that wasn't added when new - those BMW options again! The effect is as pronounced as the more obvious changes. The menus are more vivid than the plain OEM look, navigation is more convenient through phone apps and switching between podcasts and music could hardly be easier. Smartphone mirroring, for better or for worse, has become near enough essential, and it's already proving invaluable in the 3 Series.
Bad bits? Because the CarPlay is through the Aux input, the wheel- and dash-mounted controls for skipping can't be used - it's all through the iDrive dial. Not the end of the world, if still missed on occasion. Some people I've called have suggested there's an echo their end with a new microphone in the car, although that's just as like to be their device. And if anything, CarPlay has made the Pro Nav screen that was so swanky in 2014 look a bit measly, but that's a purely personal thing.
I can't fault Pete, Julian and Chris for their work. It took about a day and a half, with plenty of updates along the way. The tweeters have been integrated seamlessly, the CarPlay works a dream (a prolonged hold of the 'Back' button switches between that and the normal menu) and the whole car feels tangibly more modern. Which sounds a silly thing to say for a BMW built just a couple of World Cups ago, but such is the rate things change.
Some costs to finish up with. For CarPlay and AndroidAuto on a 3 Series like this one (i.e., pre-facelift), it's going to be £680 including VAT and programming; for the later cars that don't require the hardware, it's £450. To have the BLAM bits installed (tweeters, speakers, subwoofers, amp) is £1,280, again including VAT. (The bill for this one would be £65 more because of the tweeter trims from BMW, and the price varies by model). There are parts available to improve the Harmon Kardon set up, too, and individual items - just the mids or tweeters, without the amp upgrade - can be added.
A substantial investment then, though you only need look at what some optional audio packages cost on new cars to see a decent upgrade never comes cheap. It's a significant amount for a used car as well (it's about 10 per cent of purchase price) but if, like me, you're planning on having your car for a long time, the cost becomes more palatable. Certainly I can't ever imagine needing more than is offered by being able to properly pair an iPhone and hearing my music play with this sort of definition. As if I needed any more excuse to be behind the (still to be repaired) steering wheel...
Car: 2014 BMW 335i M Sport Touring (F31)
Run by: Matt
Bought: August 2021
Mileage: 43,443 (39,995 at purchase)
Purchase price: £19,500
Last month at a glance: Wham, BLAM, thank you mam - the 3 Series gets a new stereo
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