Open Road

Sound in automobiles is better than ever

Branded sound systems are a popular option.

Music and cars have complemented each other perfectly since the first stock radio was available in 1933. Many modern motorists find the radio in their car so natural that they wouldn't be able to drive without one turned on, as if the silence would drive them mad. Humans have an obvious connection with musical rhythm and rhyme but generally for the most part as long as the clarity is to an acceptable level, they ignore the overall quality. For those who do not ignore the quality of sound, they are labeled audiophiles. Based on the direction of standard and optional vehicle audio equipment in recent years, one might think that the audiophiles are conspiring to bring quality sound to the masses, as it's more likely that your neighbor has a high-end sound system in his sedan than in his home.

Why is it that the car buyer who listens to Netflix on 10-watt stereo speakers that are built into the bottom side of their television opts to upgrade the audio system in their new BMW to the Harman Kardon Logic7 surround sound system with sixteen speakers powered by 600 watts for $875? Is it because the slick salesman tells them about the "better spacial sounds, multi-channel audio, and overall outstanding reproduction quality" and the TV salesman didn't say a peep about an upgraded home theater setup because they're not on commission? Probably not. There are a few mental tricks going on here with the purchasing preferences. First, most new car shoppers these days are buying or leasing by monthly payment, so that $875 is more like $12 a month. Second, when buying a $500 television, an extra $875 for quality sound doesn't make logical sense, the buyer would probably rather spend the money on a bigger screen, because apparently bigger is better. When buying a $38,000 sedan, what's an extra $875 for a little more luxury? Lastly, many vehicles sold today are done so with packages instead of a la carte options, so when you want leather, you're also getting that high end surround sound too. Hyundai even tried to use its Lexicon sound system in the Equus as a major selling feature, pointing out that it's the same system used in the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Regardless of how well that may have worked for them, it would now appear it is no longer mentioned in Rolls-Royce literature as the brand's chosen audio system. With many things, exclusivity and branding create a lot of the value.

Just about every manufacturer offers some sort of branded sound system in its new cars, so it must be something consumers are asking for. The little-known fact about branded vehicle audio is that there are not as many options as it would seem. Let's look at a few common branded systems: Harman Kardon, Infinity, JBL, Lexicon, Mark Levinson, & Revel. They carry strong name recognition and can be found in seventeen different manufacturers' vehicles. The reality is that all six of those brands are owned and part of the Harman audio company – and are essentially the same thing to varying degrees of similarity. What other players are there in the stock branded market? Bose, Panasonic (Fender & ELS), Sony, Bowers & Wilkens, Meridian (only in the British Tata twins), Krill (exclusively in Acura RLX), and Bang & Olufsen bringing out the high end as a $4500+ option in BMW, Audi, Aston Martin, and AMG. That is about it, eight independent branded audio companies. Many systems are almost identical between cars, simply tweaked for space and system specs.

The bright side is that vehicle audio systems are pretty good. Since the speakers are fixed in place and the acoustic properties of the vehicle are mostly known, it's possible to properly design a well sounding system around what would otherwise be variables in a place like your living room. Also helpful is that cars are getting quieter at driving. More sound deadening, stiffer structures, better fitting interiors, and more advanced tires all create a quieter atmosphere, better for listening to music. Active noise canceling technologies, like those used in travel headphones, also emit counter signals to block out ambient noise. Maybe it just turns out that your car is the best place to listen to music after all. Maybe audiophiles are bringing great music to the masses through a conspiracy to put great sound systems in most cars... or maybe the great music in cars is just bringing out the audiophile in us all.

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