Here's Why the Cadillac Celestiq Needs 38 Speakers

Buyers of such high-end cars demand the best of everything, including sound.

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Earlier this year, when Cadillac revealed its upcoming flagship, the Celestiq, the car’s specs caught our attention. This hand-built, battery-powered hatchback will have four seats, five screens, 600 hp, 300 miles of range, an 18-foot length (longer than the full-size Cadillac Escalade), and a base price north of $300,000. In addition to all of this largesse, another metric stood out: The ultra-luxe EV will feature a premium sound system, created in partnership with famed microphone and headphones company AKG, and it will have 38 speakers.

We’re not certain if that’s the most speakers ever incorporated into a production car, but considering the Mercedes-Benz S-Class offers up to 31 and Cadillac’s three-row Escalade has 36 at most, it seems likely. And the Celestiq’s tally of 38 doesn’t even count the four external speakers — two for exterior sound production and two for pedestrian-protection warnings — to meet the regulatory requirements for near-silent electrified vehicles.

This got us wondering: Why 38 speakers? And more important, where are they and what do they all do?

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The Cadillac Celestiq’s Orchestra

We asked Marty Shade, a senior engineer with AKG and acoustics manager for all of the brand’s General Motors products. “If you think about an orchestra,” he said, “there are 44 pieces in the orchestra, ranging from a kettle drum all the way to a tiny piccolo. If you think about a choir, there are four voices in the choir: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. You're doing a far better job reproducing the sound realistically if you have a varied set of speakers to reproduce those individual parts.”

This helps explain why Cadillac gave the Celestiq its own veritable orchestra of outputs. There are nine speakers across the dashtop and one per A-pillar. Each front door contains three, while each rear door has four. Every seat has a pair of speakers integrated into the headrest. There are four units in the ceiling, and there’s a subwoofer in the back.

Rear-seat sound is important in high-end passenger vehicles, as many buyers will likely use the Celestiq as a chauffeur-driven conveyance rather than a driver’s car. And thanks to all of those speakers around the cabin, “Passengers in the back seat get kind of a front-row seat to the sound,” said Matt Figliola. Although he didn’t work on the Celestiq, his New York-based shop, Ai Design, has become an epicenter in the aftermarket custom audio space, integrating five- and six-figure stereos in new and vintage vehicles.

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Location, Location, Location

From a purely physical standpoint, integrating that many speakers into a car isn’t easy. There’s just not that much real estate inside the cabin, and it’s in fierce competition with other considerations such as ventilation, infotainment, safety, and comfort. When Shade’s team is designing a system, he said, “We have to think, if we put a speaker here in the door, will that move the window control buttons back by 3 millimeters and out of the zone that we've determined is the best location?”

In the pursuit of pinnacle sound, Shade and his colleagues analyzed every portion of the interior, seeking new audio frontiers. They contemplated putting “seat shakers” in the base of the seat cushions — as seen in the S-Class — to add an enriching, physical dimension to the bass. They looked at placing speakers in the backs of the front seats to enhance the sound for rear passengers. They even considered using the Celestiq’s giant glass roof to help reproduce sound.

They left no component or carpet unturned — mostly. “We’ve done studies on footwells, under the rear seats,” Shade said. “[We thought about] maybe putting a speaker in what we call the frunk, the front trunk, or up on the firewall between that and the passenger compartment.” What about the most obvious front-and-center position? “The steering wheel?” Shade said with a laugh. “I've never considered that.”

Many Engineers and Some Daft Punk

Prior to unveiling, the system had to undergo significant tuning and testing with expert listeners. “Getting the speaker tuning optimized,” Shade said, “took me, working with maybe 100 engineers, probably a year.”

The song types that AKG engineers used to evaluate quality were varied. “There are a couple executives over at GM who tend to prefer Rush and things along those lines,” Shade said. When his in-house team is tuning the system, they skew more eclectic.

“There are choral pieces that we use,” he said. “There are some quieter classical pieces. We will even delve into Daft Punk, the very electronic kind of pieces like that. There are about 25 tracks overall, but I can’t remember all of them.”

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More Is Better in the Celestiq

As to the question of whether speaker quantity improves sound quality, Shade believes it does. Comparing the sound of 38 speakers to 12, he said: “The level change alone would be a huge difference to anyone listening when 26 speakers were added. But we use different types of speakers in our systems. The Celestiq contains a subwoofer, woofers, midranges, tweeters, and mid-tweeters. We break up the audible frequency range into sections, with speakers specifically designed to reproduce a frequency section. This allows us to reproduce the music with greater accuracy and detail.”

Figliola is a little more skeptical. “In terms of more, it does embellish and inflate marketing ends, right?” he said. “Because the layman will see 38 speakers, and many of them will just say, ‘Oh, that must be better.’”

Is 38 an absurd number of speakers? “I don't endeavor to do a sound system in a car with that many speakers, usually,” Figliola said. “That's just too many. But the manufacturers have different considerations than I do, so I don't know.”

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Brett Berk
Brett Berk is a New York City-based writer who covers the intersection of cars and culture: art, architecture, books, fashion, film, politics, television. His writing appears regularly in top-tier automotive and lifestyle publications.