The state of Car Audio... Musings on where we've been and where we've ended up in 20 years of car audio.
Car audio has come a long way. When I first got into listening to music in cars in the 90s, car stereos were still in the dark ages. Audio was largely an afterthought - Car manufacturers realized that just about everyone wanted to hear music, but most people weren't really willing to pay for really good music. You had some cars that had decent audio systems, but even the best of them paled in comparison to even a moderate home audio solution. Cars were inherently noisy environments, and most people didn't care enough to really warrant putting a lot of thought and effort into them. There were lots of co branding with Infinity and Bose, but usually all that got you was a forced bass sound that made some semi-appropriate thudding noises. The aftermarket car audio market was huge, since anyone who wanted decent sound ended up replacing the factory head unit, and adding speakers and often amplifiers and subwoofers. These weren't just the boomers, people cruising down the street sharing music with everyone around them, even people who just wanted to hear the detail and nuances of music while driving at 60mph.
When I was in college, I developed an appreciation for music. Prior to that, I'd buy one album at a time and listen to it until I had it memorized, then find something else I liked. That meant I went through maybe 1 or 2 albums a year - needless to say, my taste in music was neither broad nor deep. As I got older, I began to appreciate other genres of music. With this appreciation came the desire to listen to music while I drove. My first car was a Peugeot 505, and it had a whopping 4 channel 15 watt per channel amplifier connected to a tape head unit. I decided that I wanted more bass out of it and spent $13 at Kragen Auto Parts on a set of 6x9 speakers and used tin snips and a hammer, with some sheet metal screws to kind of secure them to the rear deck in place of the factory 5.25" speakers which were hideously blown. I was so impressed with my own craftsmanship, sharing my music with anyone in the near vicinity, horribly distorted, I'm sure.
After I bought my first car, I knew I wanted to do something different. I read up on what was popular on the rec.audio.car newsgroup and read magazines about car audio competitions and installed what ended up being a pretty killer system in my RX-7. It sounded decent but man, sitting on top of a huuuuge subwoofer enclosure in an hatchback was a recipe for hearing damage. But, this is what you had to do in order to enjoy good music. Factory stereos were weak, and the speakers didn't hold up well to even sunlight, so the cones cracked and pretty soon you ended up with nothing but a distorted mess coming out of your car. And, one night, someone decided they needed it more than I did and drilled out my trunk lock and stole it all. The deck, the amps, the amp rack I carefully built, the front speakers, the rear fill speakers, my subwoofer, my crossovers and my EQ. It was sort of horrifying, and I ended up taking the insurance money and selling the car shortly thereafter, because I felt violated.
I think the first car audio system that I remember noticing was the Mark Levinson system in the Lexus LS430. In 1989 Lexus shocked the world by bringing to market the LS400, a RWD luxury sedan designed specifically to take on the European luxury car market, bringing Japanese style reliability to premium cars. By 2001, Lexus introduced a stereo by Mark Levinson. Originally, prior to 1996, the Mark Levinson team had not believed it was possible to make quality audio in a car, because they were such noisy environments with limited volume - there was no way to be able to create a high quality playback environment under such constraints. But, after testing the previous generation LS400, they decided that they could work with this platform and thus began what I believe turned the corner on car audio in a few short years.
In 2000, I'd purchased a 1997 BMW M3. I went in, knowing that even the Harmon Kardon upgrade stereo was a terrible excuse for an audio system, and mine lacked it. The stereo in that car was miserable - not only did it's 10 speakers barely make noise (it couldn't really keep up with just having the windows down on the free way) but the rear deck speakers started to corrode and sounded terrible. Beyond that, the head unit itself began malfunctioning, and starting the car became a routine of bonking the center stack in order to hopefully get music for the drive home. I ended up replacing it first and all the rest of the speakers and the amplifier eventually.
BMW had kind of tried - there was a separate midrange and a tweeter on the door, and kick panel midbass speakers, with speakers on the rear deck (tweeters too if you got the HK system.) The rear deck speakers even had enclosures, but their cheap construction meant that the whole thing sounded terrible. The MB Quart speakers and high quality CD head unit I put in made things quite a bit better and a decent subwoofer and 6 channel amplifier rounded it out. I was happy with it, but was annoyed I was over $1500 into car audio, and it was just barely getting to the acceptable point.
I was reflecting on this while driving our current 2016 X5. We have the base stereo, nothing special, but you can tell, in just the ~20 years between it and the M3 I owned, that BMW has come a LONG way in car audio. The base system in the X5, at least for a factory system, sounds excellent, with great imaging, clear sound and enough power to keep up with pretty much any situation. It has great connectivity options, Bluetooth streaming, a USB port that can take a USB storage device or an iPod/iPhone, along with satellite radio, HD over the air radio, and standard FM/AM radio broadcasts. It still even has a CD player and a DVD player for when you're stopped.
Best of all, BMW put some serious effort into even the base stereo, with a decently powered amplifier and under seat midbass/subwoofer drivers, large midbass drivers in the doors, and a midrange and a tweeter up higher for imaging. Each speaker has crossovers and equalization, along with time delay built in, so it sounds really decently. The time delay compensation helps make even speakers that are different distances from you send sound waves at you at the right time, so that they sound equidistant. This is key for accurate imaging on a stereo recording. Imaging is a funny thing, when it's done right, it feels like you are in the middle of a recording, rather than just hearing it from the speakers. I used to think stereo separation was just a cool effect, you can make different music come out of each channel. But, imaging plays a huge role in the immersiveness of music; good imaging makes you feel like like you're actually there.
The X5's stereo not perfect and there will always been aftermarket options that sound better, but cars are so much more complicated that the market demand for car audio has fallen off tremendously. It used to be standard that when you got a new car, the first thing you did was shop for a standard DIN sized stereo to replace the factory deck with. A simple wiring harness and a deck replacement - no cutting and $200 later, you had louder tunes with more options. Of course, thus began the slippery slope of replacing all those nasty paper cone woofer speakers with quality stuff that would last, and then getting an amplifier since those speakers weren't as efficient as the lightweight paper, then realizing you needed a sub woofer to fill in the low frequencies... oops, there goes the trunk!
Today's audio systems are much more complex. I replaced the Bose headunit in my 2007 911 Turbo, because it lacked Bluetooth and the navigation could only look 200 miles in each direction. I picked it up in San Diego and it couldn't see San Jose. The replacement deck actually dropped in no problem but the complexity came with amplification. Instead of the noise prone and fragile line level outputs most would use between the head unit and amplifier, Porsche used a Fiber Optic MOST-BUS, which required an additional $1000 worth of adapters just to get a signal to the factory BOSE amplifier. And, forget a partial or piecemeal upgrade of the amp or speakers - Porsche/Bose use a proprietary low impedance speaker setup, so if you want to replace one, it's replacing the entire thing. Luckily, the factory speaker setup is not half bad, using a passenger footwell mounted compact subwoofer enclosure, a midbass driver in the door, with a higher mounted midrange in the upper door panel and tweeters on the dash close to the windshield, with special time delays and equalization built into the Bose amp. Usually these Frankenstein solutions don't do well, and admittedly, using the setup I did meant that there was no fader control, but other than that, it sounded pretty fantastic, and gave me all the connectivity I needed.
In other cars, it's even harder, as most dashboards have moved away from the tiny single DIN opening that most cars used to have as standard - now manufacturers are putting bigger buttons or no buttons and bigger screens in cars, and upgrading the headunit requires a lot more than just swapping something standard sized. Plus, following in BMW and Porsche's foot steps, Car Area Networks (or CANbus) are being used to transmit data around, rather than pure audio standards, so there are more issues with trying to integrate with newer cars. And, newer cars have equalization and time delay compensation built into amplifiers, so an upgrade wouldn't be just replacing the amplifier, you need a digital signal processor (DSP) and an equalizer that acts differently on different channels, to tune for the acoustics of the car.
And then, we have some really fantastic high end audio solutions. The Porsche Burmester and the BMW Bang & Olufsen systems are both fantastic. I was really amazed upon hearing both. The Porsche system has really good imaging that sounds more like a really high quality set of headphones in it's clarity and accuracy. And, it's oh so powerful - even in the convertibles, you can crank the volume and drown out everything else with music. The BMW B&O systems have been criticized for being more show (the center channel rises out of the dash) but it too sounds really good. Like, it's be really hard for an aftermarket stereo to sound better. You can probably get something done cheaper, with similar volume or similar imaging, but it would be really hard to do cheaper and better without doing the labor yourself. I mean, these are $4500 and $5000 options, so definitely not for the faint of heart, but doing it better requires a lot more than just checking an option box.
When I bought my M4, I looked for at least the Harmon Kardon system, and was sad to find the combination of color and options I wanted, except for HK Audio. Even BMW decided that the base stereo in 2015 was too much fail for the US market - they dropped the base stereo and made the HK standard for 2016. I went ahead and bought the car and proceeded to spend money on new speakers and subwoofers to replace the drivers in the floor, and a bigger amplifier to power it all. The Helix amplifier I chose even had some cool time delay functions and a parametric EQ to tune it with, and with the help of a friends RTA Sound Analyzer, even dialed in the EQ. After spending over $1500 (and not replacing any of the head unit or source) I ended up with a sound system that might have been a little better than the HK option... not including the hours and hours I put into installing and tuning the system.
Unfortunately not all car audio is created equal. Contrast my extremely nice sounding BMWs and my passably ok sounding Porsche with my VW Golf R, which I otherwise really like... but it is a base model that has the worst stereo of any car I've owned in quite some time. The upmarket model has a Fender Audio branded system that is reportedly better, but man, the base stereo is really bad. Every source sounds muddy and awful, the speakers are way too far apart and the highs sound like they are being played from a completely different stereo than the rest. The bass sounds like it's coming from the car next to you, and is weirdly delayed to the rest of the music. Compound that with Carplay (at least VW's implementation of it,) being a little short on implementation and it's been a frustrating experience so far. I even went so far as to buy a powered subwoofer to try and help out, but haven't installed it yet, knowing that I could be potentially opening Pandora's box.
My VW aside, it is pretty impressive that we've gone from a dark time in manufacturer installed car audio, where the aftermarket flourished, to a time when even enthusiasts are not touching their audio systems much anymore, in less than 20 years. Part of me sheds a tear for that entire industry as I'm sure it's hurt them quite a bit, but another part of me just smiles when I can turn up the music and be happy with the way it sounds.
Silicon Valley Dad, who loves cars, cooking, clothes and cameras