Because a car is more than just transport, sometimes it's an auditory experience like no other.
Should you base your car buying decision on the audio system available from the factory? Probably not. Could you, justifiably, allow it to affect your cross-shopping approach to buying a car? If music and audio quality are important to you, maybe. We say maybe because higher-end audio in cars tends to be voraciously different. That's because a car is far from the ideal place to install a sound system. Due to things like lots of reflective glass, road noise, and minimal options for speaker placement, each system has to be tuned specifically for the vehicle to get the best out of the sound generated. Some systems do just that, while some upgrades replace the existing speaker and amp, add a speaker or two, and call it a day. Now, we know audio quality is highly subjective and tastes vary, but the CarBuzz staff spends hours and hours behind the wheel testing out these various systems with massive playlists of varying tastes. These are the systems that have stood out head and shoulders above the rest in 202.
We'll talk about the Bowers & Wilkins systems available in Volvo's cars and crossovers first because it's currently the most popular amongst staff at CarBuzz and the people that move press fleet models around. When it comes to clarity in car audio systems, the Harman Kardon-developed system using Bowers & Wilkins hardware is an audio upgrade benchmark. While it can deal with any genre beautifully, you can hear just how clear and concise the system is when listening to nuanced music like classical and jazz, or lovingly layered mixes of electronically and acoustically generated music like, just for example, Moby or Portishead. Without any extra color added, the Volvo's Bowers & Wilkins system brings out depth and clarity to music with a 12-channel amplifier and 19 separate speakers woven together by a unique open-air sub-woofer and sound processing software. Words we use to describe the system include harmonious, spacious, and, above all, detailed. All of which are incredible accolades for a sound system in a car.
It would be easy to think Nissan works with Fender to help identify them as American products, and, to a degree, you would be right, which is also why Fender is the system of choice in a number of pickup trucks - an American staple. Fender is better known for its guitars, guitar speakers, and amps than consumer audio systems but don't underestimate that. It also gives you a clue as to what kind of music is going to sound best through their systems. If you're looking for a vehicle from either Nissan or Volkswagen and like blues, country, rock-and-roll, or even metal, that's where the Fender systems truly open up. Whether it's classic BB King, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Metallica, or more modern Lucinda Williams, Jack White, or Avenged Sevenfold, the Fender systems bring detail, warmth, texture, and power to the equation. If you like to feel like the artists are in the room, the Fender systems excel. The Fender sound is also fun, which might sound like a strange observation, but that's something that can and is often lost in a higher-end audio system.
Clear, precise, and hefty is how we initially describe the Mercedes Burmester system. Above all, though it's balanced and benefits from the cabin quietness Mercedes takes pride in. The bass is distinct as, with the EQS, for example, there's no subwoofer as such. Instead, it's generated in a bass chamber built into the body at the front. The effect is substantial, well-controlled bass that doesn't push hard. That's great for most music, particularly when it comes to things like punchy kick drum sounds and bass-driven songs, but it starts to show a limitation when playing bass-heavy EDM or hip hop. If anything, it becomes too controlled and refined there but suits plenty of other genres. Overall, the soundstage is excellent (you feel like you can tell where every musician is in a room), and it shines in the mid-range, which is where even higher-end home audio can struggle. You can find up to 31 speakers in a Mercedes Burmester system as well as Dolby Atmos surround sound. But not all Burmester systems are equal, and middling versions in some Merc products come across as merely average.
When we first experienced Acura's ELS Studio system, it was the 3D Premium version and an ear-opener. We headed out on the road with a curated playlist on a USB stick to ensure maximum quality gets fed into the amplifier. We listened to the first track, Get Ur Freak On by Missy Elliot (don't judge), and were immediately impressed. Sturdy and powerful bass, a clear midrange, plenty of detail, and a bright top end. The detail and top-end come from excruciatingly careful speaker design and placement, and the 16- and 32-speaker versions include sound from the roof for the 3D experience. What blew this writer away was three tracks it dealt with close to perfect. First, some Brazilian metal featuring tribal-like drumming to see how it deals with bass response, a live performance by Bob Marley to see how well it conveys space and the soundstage layout, then National Anthem by Radiohead to examine the clarity. What's stunning about Acura's top-end sound system is how it performs right across the board.
When it comes to car audio, Rolls-Royce takes it as seriously as any other aspect of the car. Instead of working with an audio company to develop a system, Rolls-Royce Bespoke Audio is designed into the car from the start by Rolls engineers with bass tubes are integrated into the sills and windows built with sound-dampening insulation between the panes. It's impossible to detail the Rolls-Royce system in a few hundred words, and the word "painstaking" feels like an understatement when talking about how the sound is developed and tuned. What instantly stands out is the bass; so deep and responsive it makes other luxury brands sound cheap.
It takes time to realize how insanely detailed it is. The intro of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here is the sound of an AM radio being tuned accompanied by a man and woman's voices, that you typically can't hear in a car. In a Rolls-Royce Phantom at 70 mph, you can discern what they are saying. If you want to get crazy nerdy, about five seconds into the Something In The Way off Nirvana's Unplugged album, someone in the audience coughs, and you can tell where they were sitting.
If you start looking at high-end car audio, you'll start hearing the voice of audiophiles criticizing. One phrase that comes up a lot is about "hearing music as the artist intended" because none of these systems is "pure" stereo and "colors" the sound. That's complete nonsense. Coming at it as a drummer that recorded with a band and still knows working musicians with long, successful careers, I can tell you that the sound system people listen to it on isn't a consideration. An artist's only real concern is that the music connects with you and you enjoy it. That's exactly what these systems strive to embrace, and they do all add some color. If you have the kind of money to go out and buy a Rolls-Royce with the Bespoke Audio, you're definitely going to enjoy it. For the majority of stereo upgrades; we recommend hearing it first and making sure you listen using at least a small playlist of music you know inside and out. A salesperson may push some demo songs through the system that will show the system's strengths, but you want to know the weaknesses regarding what you like to listen to.
Something that gets asked a lot is what tracks to listen to appraise audio systems. Frankly, the best ones are the ones you like, but there are ones this writer uses for different reasons. Radiohead's National Anthem was mentioned earlier, and that's a regular as it has thick bass but the track builds with a jazz brass section into a cacophony that sounds a complete mess if the system isn't tuned well, but sounds glorious on one with excellent detail and separation. Any Rage Against The Machine track should pound your synapses, but tracks like Killing In The Name Of and Guerrilla Radio shouldn't lose the kick drum in the bass mix and the treble shouldn't make you wince. If you prefer pop music, Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen has amazing production and mixing values, and should show off the bass, mids, treble, and overall detail.
If you want to get nerdy, the Das Speigal by The Chemical Brothers will challenge a speaker system's discipline and ability with attack and decay. To check out the full dynamic range, Ramid Djawadi's Light of the Seven will do just that.
Don't get lost in all that, though. A good car audio system should put a smile on your face when you listen to your favorite music. If a system doesn't deal well with jazz that challenges speakers' treble and you don't like jazz, well, so what? If you love R&B and it elevates your favorite tracks, then it's a great system. The same goes for rap, funk, rock, folk, bluegrass, classical, opera, or bass-heavy EDM. Like cars in general, the best sound system is the one you love.