How sound became one of luxury’s most powerful tools.
Time for a collective experiment. First, close your eyes for a moment and relax. Then remove all thoughts and distractions. Ready? Now focus on calling to mind what, for you, represents the sounds of luxury …
… and we’re back. What this writer conjured immediately was the sound of corks. The slow squeak-slide-plop of a cork being tenderly drawn from a bottle of aged red wine, and the sudden, fizzing, pressure-pop-whack of a differently shaped one firing out of bottle of proper Champagne (because sparkling wine is simply not as musical).
Also on my list: the sound perfect snow makes as it squeaks under your skis; the supposedly soothing music that’s always played when you get a massage; the soaring, operatic screams of a Ferrari V8 as it rises through the revs and vibrates through your very soul (the Prancing Horse brand went to incredible lengths to punch up the noises from the V6 that powers the incredible 296 GTB, Robb Report’s current Car of the Year, setting a goal of making it sound like “a piccolo V12”, and nailing it).
Your choices might well be different—the snap of a cap on a Montblanc pen, the spark of a lighter, the clasp on your best briefcase—but in our own way, we all know what luxury sounds like, just as much as we know how it dazzles the eye, what it feels like on the skin, or the heft of it on a wrist.
It’s little wonder, then, that many companies go to great lengths to make their products sound just right. Indeed, for many people it is a full-time job. Radium Audio, an Emmy Award-winning sound design team that has worked on blockbuster films, most recently Oppenheimer, was called on to create just the sound of an indicator, and the seatbelt-warning chime, for Bentley. Founder Andrew Diey says he thought long and hard about the world a driver should encounter in a Bentley and decided it should feel like the 1920s and 1930s, a mechanical world where clocks would tick loudly, and things would bong rather than beep.
“My father is an antiques dealer and I’ve grown up around huge clocks and mechanisms. I thought it would be really nice when you get inside the car to feel like you’re walking into an antiques shop,” Diey explains. “The Bentley driver is very much a person who has arrived. It’s all l about the luxury, and the communication between Bentley and the Bentley driver is quite an intimate connection. I wanted the sound world to express that.”
Diey and his team made recordings in various antique shops around Britain and in The London Antique Clock Centre, as well as soaking up mechanical Bentley sounds, and then combined them all.
“The end sound is very rich, incorporating the clock sounds yet also retaining a contemporary feel,” Diey says. “It took some time to find the right combination of sounds to create that incredibly classy, old-world feel inside the car.”
Unsurprisingly, a similar attention to detail is applied to the very few sounds audible inside a supremely silent Rolls-Royce cabin. The company’s design guru, Anders Warming, is a passionate musician and composes his own soundscapes as a hobby in his spare time. He’s extremely proud to point out that if you tap the “fisheye” air conditioning vents in one of his cars, it will make a sound similar to tapping a crystal wine glass (another luxury tone in itself). When it came to designing the first-ever fully electric Rolls-Royce, the circa $1 million Spectre, which launched just a few months ago in the US, the chance to create a truly church-like cabin, thanks to the lack of any engine noise, was taken a little too far …
Director of Engineering, Mihiar Ayoubi, says the initial design was so quiet it made people feel uncomfortable, and they had to engineer some natural sounds back into the Spectre. “I drove in that car when it was that quiet,” Ayoubi recalls, “and it was strange. Some people described it as like being locked in a prison cell on their own.”
One sound you can hear in the Spectre is the indicator, of course, and Warming was very specific about how he wanted it to perform: “like a stirrer mixing your favourite whisky in a glass”.
“With Rolls-Royce, it’s not just about the sound in a cabin, but what kind of sound—that is the difference between serenity and irritation,” Warming adds.
Sound is constant and front and centre in a car, but its use as a marker for marketing purposes has really taken off in the past few years, particularly since a report by leading global market research firm Ipsos—titled The Power of You—described audio cues as “a missed opportunity for brands”.
The report found that brand mnemonics (the Windows start-up jingle; the Netflix double-drum sound) are more effective than visual logos or slogans, and campaigns that use them are around 8.5 times better at capturing consumer attention.
The way humans react to sounds is partly inbuilt or primal, but also very much learned. The pop of a cork will not excite a small child, for example, and is likely to scare them, but adults have worked out that it’s a precursor to something they’ll enjoy, according to Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the UK’s University of Oxford. “There will be a more innate response to certain sound qualities, and then there is an acquired response to the sounds that we learn come to signify something,” he explains.
Making signature product sounds stand out is only going to become more important as marketeers lean into the
use of sonic signals, but many high-quality brands have been focusing on pleasing
our ears for years.
S.T. Dupont, for example, founded in 1872 as a maker of luxury goods, knows that the “cling” sound its luxe lighters make is a rich part of the experience it offers to cigar smokers. With its new Le Grand Dupont, it chose to make that intense ringing “louder and bolder”.
“The new Le Grand Dupont Cling offers you a sensory experience that reminds you of the small escapes in life, right before you light up your cigar,” as S.T. Dupont humbly describes it.
Breguet’s ‘Réveil Musical’ watch plays ‘La Gazza Ladra’ by Gioachino Rossini, a Breguet owner.
Watches and clocks have long been a subtle yet sonorous part of the luxury soundscape—indeed, a ticking grandfather clock was often the only sound in my own grandparents’ house—with brands like Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin going to great lengths to perfect the sounds from their minute repeaters.
As early as the 1600s, horologists were competing to create a chiming watch so that folks living in those relatively dark ages would know what time it was at night, but perhaps no one goes further than Breguet, which refers to the invention of its gong spring—which replaced the previously common bell set-up—in 1783, as “a turning point in the history of watchmaking”.
Abraham-Louis Breguet designed his ingenious gong spring to be not only more compact but to produce a tone that was more harmonious, and discreet.
In 2008, Breguet released a redesign aimed at fine-tuning clarity and “auditory compatibility”, part of which involved replacing the steel used in its gong with gold, because it produced the finest and richest quality sound. The sound of gold itself? Now that is the sound of luxury.
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