Before that new car smell has a chance to dissipate, audiophiles often tear into their dashboards and interior panels, gutting the factory radio and speakers for a custom setup. Not being completely blind to this, auto manufacturers are responding with their own original-equipment configurations worthy of a listen.
Here are 10 of the best new car sound systems available in North America. Some systems come as a standard feature in their respective cars, while others are options. Regardless, they've been designed more for excellent balance and clarity than outright deafening volume, which is why wattage alone didn't sway our votes. We've also paired each with the preferred soundtrack to match both the characteristics of the system and personality of the car.
10: Bose Media System
Available in: Ferrari 612 Scaglietti
Soundtrack: The Best (Farewell Tour), Luciano Pavarotti
Some sports car purists insist a Ferrari's sound system begins and ends with its engine. Ferrari has even hidden audio systems behind retractable covers in some cars. The 612 Scaglietti is less sports car and more really fast 2+2 GT, so even the Maranello faithful shouldn't be too upset with the addition of the Bose Media System. It may not be pretty, but it does centralize the infotainment features and was developed with the car's interior in mind. Because they were born in the same area and will forever be known for the notes they hit, it's only right to enjoy this car and system with Pavarottis final work.
9: Boston Acoustics/Kicker SRT
Available in: Chrysler 300C/Chrysler 300C SRT8
Soundtrack: Aja, Steely Dan/Exclusive, Chris Brown
Chrysler recognizes the broad appeal of the 300C and wisely offers systems to satisfy multiple generations. If you're more inclined to drive the mild-mannered 300C editions, you're more likely to appreciate the optional Boston Acoustics package. Rarely do 368 Watts, seven speakers and a subwoofer produce such full sound. It's a great system to explore the similar attention to detail demonstrated on Steely Dan's Aja. If you don't roll that way, but still like the car, go for the hotter 300C SRT8. Then you can play Chris Brown's Exclusive on a system made to handle the lows: the 13-speaker, 322-Watt Kicker surround sound system with a 100-Watt subwoofer.
8: Rockford Fosgate Audio System
Available in: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution*
Soundtrack: Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters, Mitsubishi's Lancer and Rockford Fosgate have each been dismissed as being more exuberant performers than precision players in their respective fields. However, this is not true, especially in this setup. The 650 Watt, nine-speaker system includes an enclosed 10-inch subwoofer in the trunk and is surprisingly adept at handling crisp highs without sounding hollow. Unlike some other factory systems, the speed-sensitive volume and equalization work very well also.
7: THX II Certified Audio System
Available in: Lincoln MKX
Soundtrack: Graduation, Kanye West
The theater experience in the Lincoln MKX crossover is based on more than just the rear-seat DVD player. The optional THX II Certified Audio System is the best auto-based representation we've heard of inventor Tomlinson Holman's standard. Whereas the first Lincoln-based edition could get a bit mired in bass, the MKX package is cleaner. It now handles bass as efficiently as other ranges and requires little to no fiddling to get it right; it's why the 14-speaker, 600 Watt system is best experienced with a soundtrack like Kanye West's Graduation.
6: Dynaudio Audio System
Available in: Volvo S80
Soundtrack: ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits, ABBA
It doesn't have a universally known manufacturer's named attached, but the Volvo S80 features a setup built in collaboration with Danish firm Dynaudio for an impressive package of 12 speakers -- each with its own filter -- and 650 Watts (truth be told, they did work with Dolby Laboratories to fine tune the surround sound). You can't help but be impressed by the reproduction, regardless of where you're sitting. One thing that kept this system from a higher rank was its lack of intuitive operation. It's an improvement over past systems, but still uncharacteristically complicated. To bring simplicity back to it all, we paired this system with a greatest-hits package from ABBA. Just be thankful we showed mercy and avoided Ace of Base as the soundtrack of choice.
5: Bose 5.1 Cabin Surround Sound System
Available in: Cadillac CTS
Soundtrack: Synchronicity, The Police
Cadillac has gone from being the punching bag of the luxury car industry to a force that's reclaiming a healthy share of its former glory. This is due, in no small part, to the revamped CTS model. There are highlights everywhere you look, but for our purposes we'll concentrate on the Bose 5.1 Cabin Surround Sound System. Its 10 speakers may come up short of other systems in quantity, but don't equate that to the quality. Unlike some Bose-labeled factory systems that have disappointed, this is worthy of the name, delivering the accurate fullness and range associated with the brand. It matches nicely with the diverse collection of well-mastered tracks on Synchronicity from The Police, which will barely put a dent in the 40GB hard drive onboard.
4: Harman/Kardon LOGIC7 Digital Surround Sound System
Available in: Mercedes-Benz CL-Class
Soundtrack: Symphony No. 5, Beethoven
One Mercedes-Benz that clings to its old-school character is the exclusive CL-Class coupe. For the privileged few who will pilot these $100,000-plus machines, Beethoven's beautiful, inspiring Symphony No. 5 sounds its best on an uninterrupted drive while played through the CL's Harman/Kardon LOGIC7 Digital Surround Sound System. The precision-tuned package delivers 600 Watts and features 14, perfectly placed speakers. It produces some of the most realistic, dynamic range you've experienced in a car. Just remember: It's dangerous to pretend you're conducting while driving.
3: Bowers & Wilkins System
Available in: Jaguar XF
Soundtrack: Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
Three British icons, Bowers & Wilkins, Jaguar and Pink Floyd, come together for our No. 3 best system. Say what you will about the controversial Jaguar XF design, it is a stylish and contemporary replacement for the outdated S-Type. Anticipating XF buyers would appreciate the effort, Jaguar is offering a Bowers & Wilkins 440 Watt, surround sound system with 13 speakers, plus a subwoofer. Since B&W speakers are the reference-quality choice of serious audiophiles, and even recording studios, you'd best not waste them on any old soundtrack. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon brings out the best in the speakers and vice versa.
2: Mark Levinson Reference Surround Sound Audio System
Available in: Lexus LS models
Soundtrack: The Four Seasons, Vivaldi
With total harmonic distortion (THD) of less than 0.1%, the 19-speaker, 450-Watt Mark Levinson Reference (7.1-channel) Surround Sound Audio System is a compelling reason to let someone else drive while you close your eyes and experience the concertos of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. You're not likely to miss a single note because the system has a range of 20 to 20,000 Hz -- beyond the hearing range of some people. The 8GB hard drive is a little conspicuous in its light capacity, though we envision few LS owners will complain. In any case, it's a minor gripe against what's still an exceptional audio system.
1: Bang & Olufsen Advanced Sound System
Available in: Audi A8
Soundtrack: Time Out, The Dave Brubeck Quartet
It's one thing to garner a favorable review of a system for an enthusiast publication, but winning an international award is quite another matter. Ward's Auto World gave the Audi A8's Bang & Olufsen Advanced Sound System top honors at its 2006 "Interior of the Year" awards. The impressive setup consists of 14 speakers (including a 12-inch subwoofer), each with its own amplifier. And yes, we'll confess the pair of acoustic lens speakers atop the dash are just plain fun to watch as they extend and retract. Altogether, the remarkable system produces nearly 1,100 Watts. The car's cool character and the system's strengths play well with Dave Brubeck's Time Out, here sounding as fresh as ever.
Auto manufacturers are giving us more reason than ever to keep our cars fully intact and utilize the factory sound systems that come standard on modern-day models. Our 10 featured systems can be found in cars ranging from about $30,000 to nearly $300,000, allowing an outstanding audio experience for just about any budget.