It was six years in the making. It’s got nine state-of-the-art speakers and woofers and exotic sound baffles and the best amplifiers and digital source units available, says Jon Whitledge about his otherwise nondescript white Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Cargo Van. But what makes it the Magic Bus are the vanity plates. “I waited five years,” he says, “for the owner to relinquish them.” They spell out MAGC BUS. “The plates also came with a parking ticket from somewhere in California that I had to clear up.”
Whitledge, 49, is a polymer scientist and a mechanical engineer by trade. Originally from Ohio, he now lives with his wife in Torrey Hills near Del Mar. He caught the car-audio bug a few years ago and built Magic Bus 1.0, a Volkswagen Eurovan that eventually won ten first-place trophies and got him named Rookie of the Year by the International Auto Sound Challenge Association in 2003.
Magic Bus 2.0 was a Mercedes-Benz cargo van. MB 2.1 is that same van but with a finished interior and audio upgrades. “Prior to 2.1, no vehicle addressed the interior to the degree that I did.” He explains that there are 54 pieces inside that are acoustically functional. “The room is one of the most influential parts of the [listening] experience,” he says.
With shoulder-length hair, wearing jeans and a Dynaudio T-shirt, Whitledge looks more musician than scientist. When he was laid off from his biotech job three years ago, he decided to go full-force into the car-audio field at the audiophile level. His Whitledge Designs specializes in mobile audio systems and home theater design, which makes his Magic Bus something of a rolling business card.
“The first thing people ask is, how much did it cost?” He declines to discuss how much money he has spent on MB 2.1.
We test the Magic Bus not with the Who (they recorded “Magic Bus” in 1968) but with a CD made by local jazz pianist Mike Wofford. Whitledge’s system yields a sound that is focused, breathy, warm, and as immediate as a live performance. “Most people have an impression of mobile audio that’s not the best. You see people driving down the road” — he makes the sound of a blown out woofer.
But why build audiophile-level gear for vehicles? Consider that the national average of time spent in the car, he says, is 87 minutes per day. “When you have good music in the car, you don’t care when you arrive.”
Whitledge will unveil his rolling work of sound art to the public on April 23 and 24 at Tango Del Rey during his Magic Bus Home and Car Audio Expo.