Written by 6:00 am Audiophile News, Audiophile

Are Audiophiles Excited by Car Audio?

Paul Wilson wonders if car audio is really that great…

We’ve all heard them at some point or another. We’ve heard them at stop lights, gas stations, circling through parking lots, perhaps even going through our own neighborhoods. We cringe at the booming bass and wonder how such insidious noise could be confused with music. Yet despite all this, car stereo remains a significant business model. In fact, Charlotte has only two high performance dealers and numerous places for car stereo. Guess which is the more popular? 

There seems to be a demonstrable disconnect between what audiophiles consider the “absolute sound” and what today’s youth find enjoyable. I often wonder if the loud, booming bass is more a contest to hear how much bass might really be produced, and at what amplitude, as opposed to making music sound glorious. 

Both of my cars have factory installed “luxury” sound systems. One is a Harmon Kardon system. It has multiple amps and seventeen speakers scattered throughout the cabin. Six are concentric mid / tweeter drivers, which, according to the manufacturer, counts as twelve. Five are subwoofer units. 

My second car has a Lexicon system. Same stereo, depending on the model, used in Rolls Royce. It also has multiple amps and speakers strategically placed. Know what? I’ve yet to be excited by either car. I have always felt the sonics were barley average. There are several reasons for this. 

My sports car is as much about the driving experience as anything else. Radios are fine but they tend to take a backseat to the sound of an engine being pushed to red line and the exhaust note of an Italian made, high performance engine. 

The second car is more about luxury. I use Sirius XM in both cars and the streamed signal is positively abysmal.  Satellite radio hardly engenders much in the way of toe tapping excitement. I can alternatively connect a device like an iPod to either car’s USB outlets, and have done exactly that in one, but I’m sorry, that doesn’t do it for me. I cannot seem to become enthused by car audio. It is as much a way to pass the hours looking through the windshield as a path to sonic enjoyment. When I really want to listen to music, I go upstairs. 

Car makers, not surprisingly, place a high value on audio systems. Luxury sound is a simple and easy means to add thousands of dollars to the price of a car. Don’t underestimate the importance manufacturers attach to automotive sound systems. Porsche and Mercedes use will typically Burmester. Harmon is the choice for most of the family of cars in the Fiat empire. This empire ranges from a Fiat, to Chrysler, to my Maserati, even the world class Ferrari. Obviously, there are exceptions. 

Several audio manufacturers have entire departments dedicated to automotive stereo systems. Bottom line, as car prices increase, greater attention is paid to the sound system. 

I’m still not impressed. 

While there is serious engineering and science behind making a stereo system sound magnificent in a car, there are, in my opinion, contemptuous sonic nasties far too difficult to overcome. I’ve never heard an audio system in a car that remotely approaches my home system. Would such a comparison even be fair? 

Aftermarket stereos are as much about being incomparably loud with Earth shaking bass as probably anything else. I would not be surprised to find quite a few cars being driven by young people with more money in the sound system than the value of the car itself. Their loud music bothers the rest of us when we are nearby – usually resulting in many of us shaking our heads while waiting for the light to change. 

In the 70’s we endured the sonic horrors of automotive 8-track, click-click and all, then cassettes and now these luxury, almost custom engineered systems. They are happily marketed as “only costing $5K more(!)” and the accompanying promise of superior sound. 

Yeah, right. 

Okay, I am decidedly ambivalent towards car stereo. Of course, I consistently opt for those multi thousand-dollar upgrades. I routinely spend an hour or more every year negotiating with Sirius because they want to charge me some outrageous sum to play a song. And just the other day, I received a letter from them with the latest “but wait” promotion costing “only $5.00 per month.” Have yet to uncover the catch for that one. I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if I would be better off singing to myself while driving. 

I suppose I could attempt to configure some labyrinthic Rube Goldberg ploy that somehow uses my cell phone to stream something. So far, I’ve yet to wander down that path. Sounds far too complicated to me – quite the opposite of the car’s stereo.

Yet there are, oddly enough, times I’m riding along, sunroof open, glorious weather, not a care in the world and a great song comes on satellite radio. What do I do? Of course, I crank it up! There I am, singing, bobbing my head and happy as a clam. It is those times I am delighted I upgraded the sound system. And yes, that stands in stark contrast towards my ambivalence for car audio. Oh well, what can I say? 

Obviously, there are those, and I’m certain they are numerous, who enjoy luxury car audio. They will look for the best systems and ways to improve the sound. They are not so different from an audiophile doing the same thing at home. 

More specifically, I would not be surprised if the same people who seek superior sonics in their car may very well be the same audiophiles working to improve their home-based system. This stance is hardly surprising – an audiophile is an audiophile regardless of where they might be – their car or audio room. 

So, the next time you hear the automobile next to you with booming bass – rattling and vibrating beyond all comprehension, smile, they might just be the same audiophile who lives down the street with a world class system. 

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