Best Stereo System
While the editors at CNET Car Tech do appreciate the sound of a howling V-8, we're more interested in the sound of in-car stereo. In the age of digital audio, we're particularly impressed by a car's ability to support multiple audio formats, such as MP3 and WMA discs, and whether it can hook up a portable MP3 player (either with a dedicated harness or general auxiliary input jack). Of course, the single most important factor in the evaluation of a car stereo is whether it sounds good. Generally speaking, the greater the number of speakers, the better the audio quality--but this isn't always true. Speaker placement is an important factor in creating a true acoustic experience.
In an effort to turn cars into mobile concert halls, some auto manufacturers have partnered with established audio-equipment manufacturers, such as Harman/Kardon, Mark Levinson, Bose, and JBL. These sound systems are often custom built for individual car models, resulting in enhanced acoustics. Other automakers use advanced technological features, such as digital-signal processing, surround sound, and speed-sensitive volume adjustment,
to finesse their audio outputs. Our short list of nominees for Best Audio Systems
includes outsourced as well as proprietary units.
With 600 watts of power through 12 channels, the Lincoln Zephyr's optional THX audiophile system produces exceptional sound from its 14 speakers. THX provided Lincoln with a set of audio specifications for the car based on the audio company's design, so that the system could be THX-certified. The car's LCD allows control of the system's digital-signal processing, which the driver can use to refine the sound and designate a sweet spot within the car's cabin. We found the sound quality very rich with a wide variety of music, hitting just the right bass and treble notes and not distorting at high volume. The system is designed to prevent speaker damage no matter how high the volume.
The RDX's ELS surround-sound stereo system supports a host of audio sources, including XM satellite radio, MP3, WMA, RedBook CDs, DVD audio, radio, and auxiliary inputs. An iPod adapter is also available as an option. And the stereo sounds good--really, really good. The system uses a six-channel, 410-watt amplifier, pumping music through 10 speakers, including one center fill and a subwoofer. The Surround effect works very well, making it hard to pinpoint a sound source. Highs are extraordinarily crisp, the midrange is excellent, but lows get just a little muddy at high volumes. It's a rich and clear sound, making every instrument stand out in a track. With our most bass-heavy music, we found the subwoofer tame enough not to shake the car.
At $3,900, the IS 350's upgraded stereo system is expensive, but for audiophiles it's worth every penny. With 7.1-channel architecture, 300 watts, and 14 speakers, this system produces exquisite surround sound that comes through incredibly crisp but with a rich bass note. The six-disc, in-dash CD changer handles standard RedBook, MP3, WMA, and even DVD audio formats. And, just for kicks, it will play DVD video on its LCD screen when the car is stopped. It also has an auxiliary input in the center console, with a conveniently placed 12-volt outlet for an iPod or other MP3 player.
On the E550's stereo, we particularly liked the pop-out faceplate for the insertion of CDs into the in-dash, six-disc changer and the fact that there is an auxiliary input jack subtly installed in the glove box. A dedicated iPod integration kit, that enables control of an iPod via the car's head-unit display is available as a dealer-installed option. In addition to playing regular CDs, the E550's stereo accepts homemade MP3 discs, giving full ID3-tag information for artist, album, and track. The Logic7 surround-sound audio system's output was a pleasure to listen to, sounding great across all ranges right up to maximum volume.
Volvo is making in-car audio one of its key differentiators with the inclusion of an optional Dynaudio sound system on many of its higher-end models. In the C70, the upgraded stereo has 12 speakers planted around the cabin, including two subwoofers. The speakers are powered by a four-channel, 130-watt amp, a single-channel, 130-watt amp for the center speaker, and dual 130-watt channels for the subwoofers. The system includes Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound, and it sounds spectacular. Unfortunately, the stereo doesn't have any facility for MP3s.