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Sonic Booms: Putting 8 of the Best Car Audio Systems to the Test

The best options for audiophiles

From eight-trackplayers to Bluetooth, 10 watts to 1,000 or more, tinny tweeters to Kevlar-wound speakers, and ACDelco to Bowers & Wilkins, automakers’ audio offerings have evolved impressively throughout the years. Your music library is now a just tap away in the cloud, ready to stream through digitally enhanced, amazing sound systems developed in conjunction with leading audio specialists.

For luxury brands especially, how you kick out your jams has become an ever bigger selling point. Cadillac partnered with Bose to create a system called Panaray, which is set to make its debut in the new CT6. Lincoln is rolling out its new Revel system, as is Acura with its Krell setup. And, of course, the Bentleys and Benzes of the world have been in the high-end audio game for some time.

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For each system, Sound & Vision’s Rob Sabin uses a highly calibrated microphone and iPad app to measure frequency response and a sound level meter to assess background cabin noise.

It’s easy to be dazzled by gleaming speaker covers, massive wattage numbers, and other shiny details, but which sound systems really bring the noise? To help with our evaluation of eight of the premier offerings in the luxury segment, we enlisted Rob Sabin, editor-in-chief of sister publication Sound & Vision. With more than 25 years of experience in the audiovisual field, Sabin has a highly tuned ear and lots of sophisticated sound-measuring gear.

We began each test parked in a garage with a real-time analyzer (RTA) iPad app and a calibrated microphone to measure how consistently each sound system reproduced various frequencies when we played a “pink noise” test track; generally the better the system, the flatter its response curve. A bass-test sweep tone allowed us to check how well the subwoofer managed low-end frequencies. Next, we played a variety of tracks from CDs (see sidebar below) and listened for clarity across the full range of frequencies, natural reproduction of vocals and instruments, deep and impactful bass response, and the transient attack and “decay” of instrumental notes. Finally, we drove each car briefly to see how sound quality changed while on the move.

The best systems create an immersive audio experience. A quality system should produce a cohesive soundstage, meaning vocals and instruments are spread before the listener and positioned relative to one another. The system should avoid localizing sounds to individual speakers.

We ranked each system based on the evaluated criteria and our subjective observations. While the most expensive systems in the most expensive cars scored predictably well, there were some surprising sonic results.

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8. 2016 Ford Explorer Platinum

Ford is Sony’s only automotive partner; the system in the Explorer Platinum is its showcase setup. Designed with components used in its high-end home devices, the setup includes Clear Phase and Live Acoustics digital signal processing (DSP) software designed to clean up low-quality digital audio files and create the sensation of listening in a concert hall or studio.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to turn off the spatial processing, and it results in unintended positioning of instruments and voices and adds artificial echo, especially with surround sound enabled. You also notice immediately from the front passenger seat that vocals localize to the right A-pillar speaker, distracting during songs with a strong lead vocal. From every seat, the system lacks definition at the far ends of the frequency range. Worse yet, the front door panels rattle when major bass is present.

Sony designed unique volume and audio controls, mirrored on the company’s home systems, to go with its upgraded sound systems.

Sabin says: “While an uninitiated listener might find this system palatable and engaging, it was surprisingly flawed, lacking deep bass reach and dynamic impact. Add to this the poor soundstaging for front passengers, the veiled, muddled sound for the back-seat passengers, and an obvious and loud panel resonance at 60 hertz, and you’re not left with a lot
to like.”

System: Sony premium audio system, 500 watts, 12 speakers
Price: Standard on Platinum trim
Pros: Smooth, unexaggerated sound in middle and high frequencies
Cons: Can’t disable spatial processing; poor passenger sound experience

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7. 2015 Infiniti QX80

While not Bose’s highest-end setup, the 13-speaker arrangement offered as standard equipment for the QX80 is a step above its garden-variety systems and offers a wide and lifelike soundstage. In the garage, the sound noticeably trailed off toward the high frequencies, requiring some help from the treble control to try to restore some of the missing sparkle.

The Bose Centerpoint surround feature seems to have a greater effect on the amount of reverb present and less on the physical location of sounds; it’s overpowering in the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Time” and makes Michael Ruff sound like he’s “in an echo chamber,” says Sabin. While this mode had no other glaring faults, it didn’t
sound natural.

Sabin says: “The system’s overall character was darker, more veiled, and less open than the best systems. This was the only system where I immediately had to reach for the treble control in an attempt to get it to sound ‘right,’ and our RTA measurements did seem to show that the highs trailed off.”

System: Bose Premium Audio, watts N/A*, 13 speakers
Price: Standard
Pros: Wide soundstage
Cons: Less detailed and veiled sonic signature

*Company would not divulge.

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6. 2015 Mercedes-Benz S550

Benz’s Burmester sound system is impressive, with a healthy amount of power and ornate stainless-steel speaker covers. But sitting in the garage with eyes closed, we immediately notice a narrow, abridged soundstage for each front passenger. Vocals and centered instruments sound as though they’re directly in front of each seat and relatively low in the car, and although accurately reproduced, tight vocals on tracks such as “Stand Me Up” seem a little unnaturally positioned. Still, the midrange is clean and detailed.

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Years of experience and a bit of tech help Sabin evaluate the audio systems in our test cars, including the S550 and Lincoln MKX.

Highs and lows are a mixed bag. In “The Firebird Suite,” there’s a lack of decay and precision on a ringing triangle, and none of the boom on big bass hits we heard in some other cars. The bass test reveals response drops off below 45 Hz, which partly explains why it lacks the low end impact. Moving the surround sound to “rear” mode dramatically improves the experience for back-seat passengers—important in a chauffeur-ready car such as the S-Class—and produces an almost cocoonlike wraparound sound field for the power-reclining rear seats.

Sabin says: “A mostly neutral tonal balance and a nice level of detail. But the unusual handling of the soundstage, with its in-your-face presentation of vocals and its lower height that rarely lifted the soundstage above the top of the dashboard left me frustrated.”

System: Burmester Surround Sound, 590 watts, 13 speakers
Price: Standard
Pros: Flat frequency response; “cocoonlike” back-seat experience
Cons: Limited bass response; narrow soundstage

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5. 2015 Acura RLX Hybrid

Krell Industries’ optional system for the 2014 RLX marked the first time the audio specialist entered the automotive space. Krell says it was able to duplicate its home-theater performance in the RLX, with high-end parts such as lightweight mag­nesium-cone tweeters, Zylon “super-fiber”—a material used on race cars—for the six mid-bass speakers, and an amplifier with a claimed third less distortion than competitors.

Initial impressions were strong, with crisp sound reproduction and excellent high-frequency response. Turning on the DTS Neural surround-sound setting tends to offset a bit of high-end harshness evident on some brighter tracks, but it’s not well-suited to vocals. From either front seat, the system localized sound to the doors worse than any car we tested. And in the back seat with rear-seat mode enabled, the parcel-shelf speakers create a soundstage behind the passengers, as if you were facing away from the performance at a concert.

Sabin says: “One of the better systems we tried, with its primary flaw being the tendency for highs to localize distractingly to the door tweeters. That aside, it delivered deep and impactful bass down below 35 Hz and had superb and engaging timbre, clarity, and detail on instruments and voices.”

System: Krell Premium Audio, watts N/A*, 14 speakers
Price: Standard on Advance trim
Pros: Car is extremely quiet in electric mode; accurate, open reproduction; deep, tight bass
Cons: Easily localized tweeters; can sound strident on bright recordings

*Company would not divulge.

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4. 2016 Volvo XC90

The XC90 features the latest and greatest sound system from British company Bowers & Wilkins. Among the highlights: A dash-mounted center tweeter that aims sound directly at passengers to avoid windshield reflections, Kevlar midrange speakers, an open-air subwoofer mounted directly to the body for deeper bass, and a DSP sound mode that simulates a famous concert hall in Volvo’s Swedish home. This XC90 came without a CD player, so we played music through the aux input via a high-end digital-audio converter plugged into the USB port of Sabin’s laptop.

Though a cool party trick, Concert Hall mode just adds unnatural reverb. But in either surround-sound mode or the regular stereo setting, the Bowers & Wilkins system is excellent. The vocals, piano, and snare drum of “Stand Me Up” sound as if they’re floating above the dashboard, and the system delivers intense, realistic hits on heavy percussion tracks. For the complex “Welcome to the Machine,” it separates the many sounds and effects without any harshness or edginess.

Sabin says: “Tonally neutral, good power reserves and dynamics, delivered a lot of fine detail in the music, and played loud without strain. With its nine-band equalization controls, it offered the highest degree of user tuning of any system—not that you’d really need it.”

System: Bowers & Wilkins Premium Sound System, 1,400 watts, 19 speakers
Price: $2,650
Pros: Nine-channel equalization; defined, strong bass
Cons: Echoing Concert Hall mode; no CD player

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3. 2015 Bentley Mulsanne Speed

The most expensive car predictably has the most expensive system. Developed by British company Naim, it tacks a whopping $8,030 onto the Mulsanne’s price. Because the Mulsanne will often be used for chauffeuring, we paid extra attention to the back-seat experience; one of the many DSP modes improves sound for rear passengers.

In the front seat, switching among the Audiophile, Balanced, or Driver DSP modes does more to relocate the sound sources than change the tone. There’s an expansive soundstage on “Take the ‘A’ Train,” with cleanly replicated instruments. Bass response isn’t the deepest of the group, but it still delivers powerful and impactful percussive hits.” Detailed midrange performance makes vocals natural, clear, and pure. Overall, it’s a warm and lifelike musical experience.

The biggest problem is triggered by running a bass test tone, which made the parcel shelf resonate and rattle loudly from 100 down to 50 Hz, and this proves doubly annoying while listening to bass-heavy music. We attribute the flaw to the poor fit-and-finish of the trim piece, a letdown for an otherwise impressive system.

Sabin says: “A truly outstanding audiophile experience, with an awesome soundstage presentation, great transient impact, solid bass response, and mids and highs that were exceptionally open and clean.”

System: Naim for Bentley, 2,200 watts, 20 speakers
Price: $8,030
Pros: Great rear-seat mode performance; clean, realistic sound
Cons: Bass depth a bit short of the best; resonance from parcel shelf

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2. 2016 Lincoln MKX Black Label

Lincoln is committed to use Revel audio systems for the next 10 years, with the first application in the MKX crossover. The top-spec, 19-speaker Ultima version is bundled as part of a $4,400 Luxury package.

The Revel’s soundstage is high and forward, right on the windshield, giving you a sense of sitting in front of the performers. The most telling track was the Jim Keltner drum solo. It was intense, as though you were in the same room as the drum kit. On jazz recordings, each instrument is defined clearly, with incredible levels of detail. There is no harshness or edginess, and precise, detailed bass is easy to follow, even at highway speeds. Though we detected a few small panel resonances when running the bass test, nothing was noticeable when playing music. No matter what you play on the Revel Ultima, it sounds rich and immersive.

Sabin says: “It produced a huge and open soundstage above the dashboard, delivered percussion and drum thwacks with a solid leading edge and natural decay, and offered a very natural and neutral sonic balance with gobs of detail. It made everything sound great and revealed all the musical detail in a recording.”

System: Revel Ultima, watts N/A*, 19 speakers
Price: $4,400 (part of Luxury package); standard on Black Label
Pros: Clear and accurate highs; lifelike bass and drum impacts
Cons: Slow-responding MyLincoln Touch interface; back-seat sound muffled

*Company would not divulge.

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1. 2016 Land Rover Range Rover Sport

It takes just one song to become smitten with the Range Rover Sport’s Meridian sound system. From Michael Ruff’s guttural vocals to the cacophony of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” the Meridian impresses on nearly every track, its 23 speakers creating an enormous soundstage to envelope the listener fully. Its 3-D DSP mode attempts to add a sensation of greater height to a recording, but it sounds best set to Meridian 2-D mode.

At highway speeds, the Meridian held up against road noise better than any other system, with clear and well-defined bass still distinguishable at 75 mph, and the audio experience for back-seat passengers was among the best of any car tested, with a pleasant and accurate soundstage. Overall, the Revel was an extremely close second, but the Meridian was the system we wanted to listen to all day long.

Sabin says: “I was just so impressed with how natural it sounded all the time with seemingly all kinds of music, and it delivered everything in a wide, up-front, and very precise soundstage. We should all be so lucky to have a system in our home that sounds this good, never mind in a car.”

System: Meridian Signature Audio, 1,700 watts, 23 speakers
Price: $3,250
Pros: Highly engaging with any music; powerful, deep bass below 30 Hz; great back-seat sound
Cons: Low frequency panel resonance around 40 Hz; cumbersome touchscreen interface


Top of the Pops

To ensure we had the highest quality possible, we used original audio CDs in every car but the Volvo (which didn’t have a CD player). Test tracks included the following:

 

Bill Berry and his Ellington All-Stars —
“Take the ‘A’ Train”

Howard Hanson —
“Symphony No. 2 Op. 30 ‘Romantic’: 3rd Movement”

Michael Ruff —
“Wishing Well”

“The Sheffield Track & Drum Record” —
Track 6: Jim Keltner

Amanda Marshall —
“The Gypsy”

Micah Sheveloff —
“Stand Me Up”

Pink Floyd —
“Time,” “Money,” “Welcome to the Machine,” “Wish You Were Here”

Jason Weaver —
“I Can’t Stand the Pain”

Jennifer Warnes —
“First We Take Manhattan”

Minnesota Orchestra —
Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite, VII. Finale”

Pink noise test track —
An audio file that plays every frequency between 20 and 20,000 hertz equally, allowing audio engineers to measure frequency reproduction

Frequency sweep —
1,000 to 20 hertz; a bass test tone that sweeps toward the lowest limit of human hearing to check subwoofer performance and panel resonance

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