With all the technology in new vehicles, it’s easy to forget about the stereo system. But for some – and certainly for music lovers like me – the car interior is the last bastion of uninterrupted music listening in a world full of distractions. The experience is different from listening to music at home or even with high-end headphones, because the interior of a vehicle feels like a private listening space and, despite the noise inherent in the wind and on the road, the music always seems to sound better with the asphalt hissing under your feet.
Automakers have stepped up their audio game to the point that removing stock components and installing aftermarket equipment has become unnecessary for most new-car buyers. While you can always get better sound from the aftermarket, it will cost you more, may permanently damage your vehicle, and may cause issues when you bring your car in for servicing, all for the ultimate in audio quality gains. mostly marginal. Like getting a little more performance out of your engine, you can quickly reach a point of diminishing returns in terms of cost-benefit.
audio arms race
If you decide to avoid the aftermarket route, when shopping for a new vehicle, you really don’t have much choice but the system that comes standard with the car or a premium system available as an option. or included in the high-end versions. Premium systems generally perform better than standard systems because they usually have more speakers and amplifier power (measured in watts).
Luxury car manufacturers have engaged in an audio arms race to boast the most speakers and the highest amplification power. Despite this, having more speakers and more power doesn’t always mean better performance.
The latest Mark Levinson system in the fifth-generation Lexus LS, for example, features a 2,400-watt, 16-channel amplifier powering 23 speakers at 16 locations in the flagship sedan. While the Mark Levinson systems are indeed some of the best I’ve tested, Acura’s ELS Studio 3D Premium system available in the Acura TLX with “only” 17 speakers and 710 watts outperforms many high-output systems. louder speakers.
It’s not all about the brand
Another potentially misleading indicator of audio quality is branding and it is not recommended to base a purchase decision solely on the speaker logo.
Over the past decade, automakers have partnered with audiophile boutique brands such as Burmeister in Mercedes-Benz, Meridian in Jaguar-Land Rover vehicles and Revel in Lincoln. But a dirty secret of OEM audio is that components like amplifiers come from a variety of vendors. A Bang & Olufsen system, for example, may consist of equipment from major automotive suppliers such as Alpine or Panasonic.
While Bose single-handedly invented OEM-branded audio nearly 40 years ago, it’s frowned upon by audiophiles – no highs, no lows, it has to be Bose. But the best Bose systems can be on par with more elite brands, though some of the company’s automotive systems can vary widely, even within vehicles from the same automaker.
Speaker placement and audio features
Beyond component specs and brands, consider system configuration as well. Back in the day, car audio enthusiasts went to great lengths – and performed major surgeries inside their vehicles – to get a center speaker in the dash, tweeters in the veil from the front door or subwoofers in the front for better sound.
While center-channel speakers and sail-panel tweeters are now common, only a few automakers, such as Lincoln, offer front-mounted woofers to avoid disjointed bass sound from the rear. Some automakers, such as Land Rover and Acura, also install speakers in the headliner for better sound at each seat. Some are even in the headrest, like in some Nissans.
Also check if a car audio system has useful sound shaping features. Many systems use signal processing to tailor sound to the interior, focusing it for the driver, front passengers or all occupants of the car. I’m not a fan of the myriad and generally proprietary digital signal processing and virtual surround sound that often add an unnatural tint to tracks, though some may improve the sound. Fortunately, most can also be turned off.
Beyond the simple bass and treble controls, separate settings for the mids and subwoofers are useful for getting better sound. And I like having a graphic equalizer to adjust the sound to my liking, although very few car manufacturers still offer a graphic equalizer. BMW is the one that does.
trust your ears
Which brings me to my last and best advice when buying a car stereo: trust your ears. At this point, I could throw in a bunch of audiophile qualities to look for, such as sound staging, imaging, and headroom – and I’m happy to lay those things out and recommend the reference recording in the comments section. Ultimately, go to a dealership, try out the different systems available, and hear what works best for you. Be sure to play the same song from the same source, just like we do for car and sound system reviews. If you’re going to pay $1,000 or more for an upgraded stereo, isn’t it worth listening to your favorite song for a few minutes a few times?
If you like highly compressed, bass-heavy audio and use low-res sources like basic streaming services, listen to a system using this hardware. On the other hand, if you want the best possible sound, test a system using hi-res streams such as Tidal, lossless FLAC files that some car manufacturer audio systems support via USB, or a CD – if you still have them or can still find a disc player in a new vehicle.