Remember the last ICE age? In-car entertainment really only took off in the nineteen eighties, having previously been the province of louche living types with eight-track cartridge players in their Jensen Interceptors. Suddenly though, by the mid-eighties everyone had a car stereo of some description, and a few worked rather well. Pioneer, Clarion and Nakamichi sold cassette-based systems that brought sophistication to music on the move for the very first time.
By the mid-nineties, ICE had come of age and gone in-house. No longer were aftermarket designs acceptable; any luxury conveyance had to come with its own bespoke integrated system. Then by the dawn of the new millennium, instead of employing audio makers, car companies started partnering up with pukka hi-fi manufacturers. So, the news that Naim Audio was working on a package for Bentley Motors a decade ago wasn't startling in itself. Rather, the exciting thing was that the two companies had pretty much peerless reputations in their respective fields - surely this was going to be special?
It was, so much so that the first Naim for Bentley system swiftly silenced any critics who'd wondered about its premium price tag. Here was a superlative hi-fi that just happened to be in a car, and not an average one at that. It was a formidable engineering challenge for Naim, because the Salisbury company had to work around the standard system fitted in Crewe. The stock Bentley head unit was retained but pretty much everything else got replaced by Naim hardware, from the amplifiers and loudspeakers to the power supplies that aspirated them. Many of Naim's golden eared engineers were involved, and the result was sublime.
Ten years on, the Naim and Bentley symbiosis continues. The 2014 £185,000 Flying Spur W12 has the newest system fitted, which despite all the other attractions - the barrel-chested 616BHP engine, beautiful body, opulent leather-lined cabin - proves to be one of the most compelling elements of the car. Crawling through Monday morning traffic on the North Circular isn't made any more bearable if your bolide has all the thrust of an intergalactic starship, but the ability to hear your music in breathtakingly high fidelity really rather lifts one's mood...
The latest Naim for Bentley system offers various exotic options, including serious back seat infotainment (screens, DVD players, onboard Wi-Fi hotspot, etc.), but its real appeal is how it plays music. Whatever you choose to listen to en route, you're left wanting more. The sheer scale of the sound is immense by home hi-fi standards, let alone those of a car. Bass seems to be summoned up from the very centre of the Earth, and this glides seamlessly to a midband as vast as the solar system. Its ethereal highs have a sense of space that I've not heard in any other moving object.
Whether you're playing Beethoven's beautiful Pastorale symphony, assaulting your senses with reggae from Sly and Robbie, or slacking back to Isaac Hayes' slick soul grooves, the Naim for Bentley installation takes your breath away. The best test of a serious sound system is its ability to make every type of music magic - lesser designs tend to flatter some genres and leave others cold - but this one enthrals regardless.
Naim says the system punches out over one kilowatt, but raw power figures are as unhelpful when assessing a hi-fi as they are with a car. Ultimately the enjoyment comes from how this power is delivered, and in hi-fi the interaction between the amplification and loudspeakers is critical. In the Naim for Bentley system one has been perfectly attuned to the other, something that only human ears can attest to. One quick blast of your favourite tune shows that everything is just right. Its sumptuous cabin provides a wonderfully cosseting environment for the multiple Naim speakers which have been tailored like a Savile Row suit, using special technology to radiate the sound around like no others.
Whether listening to soft acoustic music at low levels or pounding out heavy rock at high ones, there's a wonderful delicacy to the sound - the system cuts through the recording's outer layer to offer uncanny insight into the way the music is played. So whilst it can shake the ground to its very foundations when called upon so to do, you don't have to deafen yourself to enjoy it. The system's ability to capture subtle dynamic and rhythmic inflections is up there with some of the finest home hi-fi systems.
It's fascinating to experience cost-no-object in-car entertainment, just to hear what's possible. The Flying Spur is one of the world's great cars, and in the Naim for Bentley hi-fi it has a sound system to match. Far more special than fancy wheel or paint options, it's a blessed relief from today's sclerotic city traffic and a divine, guilty pleasure for high speed cross-country driving. The A303 will never feel quite the same again.