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Here Are Three Ways That Car Audio Systems Trick Listeners Into Thinking They Sound Good

Xc90 Bowers And Wilkins Audio

With in-car entertainment being such a pivotal piece of modern cars, manufacturers are really ramping up the sound system arms race. The Cadillac Escalade and new BMW 7-Series offer up to 36 speakers, the new Acura Integra offers 16 speakers including some in the headliner, even the Nissan Rogue throws audio nerds a bone with native FLAC lossless audio support off of a USB drive. Yet despite all this audio system dick-swinging, clarity isn’t usually at the forefront. Every automaker employs tricks to make drivers think their car audio systems sound better than they actually do, and here are three of the most common tricks in the book.

The Basics

First and foremost, it’s important to establish that a car is not and will never be a reference environment. Think of a recording studio and a picture should readily come to mind: you have a bassist rolling a joint, a guitarist tuning down to drop C, [Editor’s Note: not to be confused with dropsy – JT] but more importantly, excellent soundproofing, low ambient noise levels and freedom to place monitor-grade loudspeakers wherever is best.

In a car, your music is competing with road noise, wind noise and powertrain noise, and speakers can only be packaged in so many locations. After all, you can’t really hang a 6.5-inch speaker from the A-pillar, nor can you really place a speaker beyond the perimeter of the interior.

Another car audio issue is material reflection. Look around the interior of your car and you’ll likely find glass, plastics, foam and textile. Glass is flat and extremely rigid, so it reflects sound very well. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the foam in your seats which absorbs sound reflection. As a general rule, sound reflection reduces clarity. Perhaps most importantly, very few car audio systems offer a true Hi-Fi experience with flat frequency response. In fact, every sound system is engineered with a sound signature in mind. Objective clarity is rarely ever the goal.

Warming Things Up

Outlander Rockford Fosgate Audio
Photo credit: Rockford Fosgate

Let’s go back to the concept of noise. The roar of the wind over bodywork, the rush of the road and the slap of a car’s tires often emit low-frequency noise. Let’s look at road noise specifically. The University of Auburn did some really cool noise testing of various paved surfaces and published this awesome graph of tire noise on open graded friction courses.

Road Noise Frequency
Screenshot: University of Auburn

Notice how road noise peaks between 400 and 800 Hz. That’s right in the meat of the low mid-range, around where keys 47 through 59 or G4 through G5 on a piano sit. As for tire noise, the Acoustical Society of America found an important number of resonant modes in the 170 to 650 Hz range.

Of equal importance is a pilot coast-down test by the US Government that saw significant tire noise in the 200 to 500 Hz range, right where a vast number of guitar notes sit. Perhaps more importantly, humans are really bad at perceiving low frequencies compared to higher frequencies. Our perception of loudness starts rolling off below 1,000 Hz, or 1 kHz. To combat tire and road noise and help bring bass to life, sound engineers can slightly boost low-end frequencies.

A slight boost in the low to lower midrange is called a warm sound signature and while it’s fun to listen to and masks road noise, it does impact clarity. The further low frequencies are boosted, the more they tend to blend together on most audio systems. Go really far, and you end up with a dark audio signature which is basically bass soup.

A great example of this process in action is in the current Nissan Sentra’s mid-range six-speaker audio system. It’s a fairly basic system with paper-cone woofers and all the heavy lifting done by the head unit’s digital signal processing and integrated amplifier. It’s not super powerful, nor made of the highest-end materials, but Nissan’s sound engineers likely still wanted it to be punchier than the stereos in most competitors.

Sentra Speaker
Photo credit: eBay

As a result, it’s quite a warm audio system, with fairly drowned-out bass. When playing modern music with electronic production like Kanye West’s I Am A God, 808s and kick drums start blending together and there’s a definite loss in mid-range clarity. That’s before you find the little digital icon marked Bass Enhancer. Tap that and the audio system goes from warm to dark, with kick drums growing as subtle as a shovel to the back of the head. Now the kicks and 808s sound nearly one and the same, vocals feel slightly drowned and synths really have to fight to be heard. Yep, welcome to speaker distortion. Not the most fun place to be, especially with the likelihood of frying gear. Disable bass enhancement and you’re left with a stereo that’s more fun than similar six-speaker systems in the Toyota Corolla and Kia Forte, at the expense of some clarity.

Flying The V

Vw Beats Audio
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

One trick often used in audio is a colored V-shaped sound signature. What do I mean by that? Well, first let’s talk about bright sound signatures that feature slight treble boosts. When a sound signature is set up for a slight treble boost, great for bringing out detail between say, 3 kHz and 10 kHz. The sort of space where violins, cymbals, upper-range synths and higher piano keys like G7, A7 and B7 exist. Studio techs often like a bright sound signature for mixing because it readily reveals imperfections. When you pair the treble boost of a bright sound signature with the slight bass boost of a warm sound signature, you create a V-shaped sound signature that offers bright yet punchy sound.

Equal Loudness Contour
Modified from: Lindosland – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Lindos1.svg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2565926

In terms of the science behind a V-shaped sound signature, it helps a great deal to look at equal-loudness curves. Each line on this chart represents the sound pressure levels that humans perceive as a constant loudness from steady-state tones. The lower the line dips, the more perceptive humans are to tones at that point on the line. As I mentioned before, human perception of loudness rolls off below 1 kHz, so boosting bass helps add some punch to music.

But what about that 3 kHz to 10 kHz range? Why boost it when human perception of loudness peaks at 3 kHz? Well, it’s largely a matter of staging. In pretty much every car, the tweeters are placed in front of the driver. When sound is coming from in front of a human, it has to go around the human’s head and bounce off the outer ear, so narrow frequencies above 1 kHz or so can seem a touch faint. Punch those up, and everything sounds just that little bit crisper.

Plenty of audio engineers set mass-market systems up with V-shaped sound signatures, from Beats headphones to car audio systems. Why? Because it’s the most colorful sound signature and humans like colored sound signatures. V-shaped sound signatures imbue most popular music with such a sense of fun that most people prefer their sound to that of a flat sound signature. It’s definitely not the cleanest sound out there, but a V-shaped sound signature or equalizer profile can put a little sparkle on even a slightly crappy stereo.

Welcome To The Stage

Akg Escalade audio
Photo credit: AKG

Now it’s time to get into the really fun stuff – staging. So what is staging? It’s basically the position and direction of sound in a room. Through millennia of evolution, mammals like humans have gained excellent ability at picking out what direction a sound is coming from. Well, excellent on a horizontal plane, at least.

See, humans really aren’t great at approximating vertical sound positioning. In a 2003 study of auditory spatial resolution in horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, researchers at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center found that only 30 percent of subjects had a minimum audible angle of less than 10 degrees on a vertical plane. While this isn’t great in a survival scenario, it’s just fine in an audio staging setting.

See, there isn’t significant sound missing from above us in a room, but because most cars don’t have a center driving position, it’s extremely rare for drivers to be in the sweet spot where left and right speakers are equidistant. This prevents stereo sound from having a truly immersive feel, so vehicle audio engineers are often turning to surround sound to make things sound fuller.

BMW E90 Logic 7 Audio DSP Amp
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

There’s just one problem. Most songs are two-channel recordings. How the hell do you turn two audio channels into five or seven? Well, you kind of have to cheat by using signal processing to add reverb, mess with time alignment to delay sound from speakers close to the driver, implement a variety of low-pass, high-pass and bandpass filters to shuffle frequencies around to various speakers in the cabin, and run digital reconstruction to try and eke the most out of compressed audio. Is it immersive?

In most cases, absolutely. The trouble is that a certain level of clarity is sacrificed over a simple two-channel or 2.1-channel (the 0.1 is a subwoofer) setup. Isolated vocals can sound distant, bass can be muddied and two rhythm guitarists can simply blend together. While some modern tracks like Chief Keef’s Faneto and SOPHIE’s Ponyboy do well in a surround sound environment, sparse tracks like Feist’s 1234 and guitar-heavy tracks like Arctic Monkeys’ Fluorescent Adolescent can seem really dampened and distant.

Granted, there are a handful of cars where surround sound processing works. The on-stage mode in the Genesis GV80’s top-spec Lexicon audio system is thunderous yet still reasonably clear, while surround sound on the Lexus LS 460’s Mark Levinson system does a good job at sending kicks, 808s, synths and hi-hats to different speakers in an attempt to sound fuller without sacrificing too much in the way of clarity. However, every premium audio system I’ve tested has been crisper and cleaner with surround sound processing switched off. My all-time favorite, the Bowers & Wilkins system available in the current Volvo XC90, sounds absolutely spectacular in studio mode. The much-vaunted Gothenburg Concert Hall mode? It’s really more of a gimmick, heavy on the reverb and not particularly crisp.

So now you know three techniques that automakers use to trick you into thinking that their audio systems are better than they actually are. Is it bad to enjoy any of them? Hell no! I’ve run V-shaped equalizer settings in almost every car I’ve owned, and I adore the sheer thunder of the Toyota Prius Prime’s available dark, bombastic JBL audio system.

Reference environments and neutral sound signatures are great for analytical critique but as I previously said, a car isn’t a reference environment, nor is it a space typically suited for a neutral sound signature. Having a car audio system with a fun sound signature is totally cool, but it’s worth recognizing that clarity is sacrificed in the process. Now go out there, have fun, and try boosting bass and treble by just a tick or two in your daily driver to hear what a difference sound signature makes.

Lead photo credit: Volvo

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85 Responses

  1. Last fall I bought a 2010 Mazdaspeed 3. It comes with Bose branded speakers. To my vast amusement I lifted up the carpeted floor behind the rear seats and discovered a combination spare tire and subwoofer unit. The sound is meh.

    1. Some folk say: No highs, no lows, must be Bose…..

      I’ve had (still do in wifey’s CX-5) several Mazda Bose systems. meh sums it up. but, back in ‘87 – low bar era for factory audio, but at least we had FM- I had a Camaro with the factory Bose system. Was certainly the best factory system I had heard to date.

      1. The persistent rumor back in the day was that old man Bose had hearing loss, but no one had the balls to tell him his ears were off, so the systems were tuned to his missing frequencies. I’ve literally never heard a Bose system that sounded good to me.

        1. The C5 Corvette has a Bose system and not only is it the worst-sounding audio system I’ve ever heard, to add insult to injury the Bose logo on the speakers likes to come loose and rattle.

  2. Even counting all the obscene aftermarket stereo equipment I installed in my teens, and the fancy stuff I’ve heard in 6-figure modern German cars, the best car stereo I’ve ever heard was the optional-upgrade OEM unit in my old ’04 Saab 9-5.

    It had a decent power level amplifier, and a giant center channel in the dash. There just isn’t room for that unless the manufacturer decides to go out of the way.

  3. Cabin gain ruins everything. Depending on the speakers used most car speakers are essentially infinite baffle blasting into a sealed enclosure (cabin). You end up with weird peaks and valleys at specific frequencies. V shaped equalization tricks you, too much SPL for the cabin tricks you, terrible sensitivity on most car speakers means you need more power than is right for the listening space. Blech…

    1. Am I the only one ok being tricked? I mean, the whole point is for me to enjoy it; if it’s just sound, what the fuck do I care if I’m actually hearing well tuned and high end equipment or if I just think I am. As long as the charade is going on the entire time, I couldn’t give a damn. I don’t pay more for the “better” sound system, so it’s not like I’m getting swindled out of my money.

    2. The real secret to awesome sound in any vehicle isn’t really much of a secret. Start out with a quiet cabin and you will be amazed at how nice a system can sound. My Mercedes S550 is freakishly quiet but the Burmester system rolls off at 41hz rather sharply. I installed an 18″ driver in a baffle just behind the back seat with an Audio Control LC1-800 for restoration and amplification of a single octave crossed from 20hz to 40hz and it sounds quite nice after some time alignment.

  4. Wow, I didn’t realize there was a whole contingent of audiophile nerds hereabouts. I wrecked enough of my hearing at live AC/DC shows in the ’80s that I don’t need expensive fidelity in my cars, and “clarity”? I gave up trying to decipher lyrics around the same time.

    If I can be loud enough to embarrass my kids at the middle-achool pickup line with a merry blast of Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health,” then my car audio dollar has been well spent.

    1. because most of us aren’t ‘audiophiles’.

      audiophiles nitpick $15,000 rca cables on their ‘tonality’.
      audiophiles argue that multiple $300 mahogany wood blocks with a special wood burning stamp on them are required to elevate speaker cables off the floor to change the acoustical signature of the wire.

      audiophiles are wealthy enough to pay mind boggling amounts of money for a imperceptible butt dyno improvements.

      i’m just plain poor.

      i like speakers and wiring. but especially any speaker that’s on the shelf at goodwill on 50% off day.

      1. What if I can’t tell the difference? I mean, sure, if you tape a magnet to the back of a red solo cup I can tell that sounds like shit. But I swear, audiophiles get their panties in a bundle when someone dare suggest that something is “fine” and they can’t tell the difference.

        My brother invested thousands and thousands in some home audio set up. Going on and on about the receiver has this power and that design, and these speakers are this and place over there, and those speakers are that and go here, and you sit here, and “OMG CAN’T YOU TELL HOW GOOD IT SOUNDS!?!?!”

        It’s good, but a $200 bundled receiver/speakers would have sounded close enough for a fraction of the price for me. And then he’s offended, “How can you not tell!? The clarity! The fidelity,” along with a bunch of other words describing sound but I have no idea what they actually mean.

        He was genuinely mad when I suggested I was happy with my $15 Skullcandy headphones. “Those are garbage!” Ok, whatever, they were cheap, when I lose them I won’t be that mad, but in the meantime I’m still enjoying my music.

        1. There is a point of diminishing returns with audio, and it depends greatly on the person where that line is. Lots of people can’t tell. Some people can tell up to a point. A few people have golden ears. And then a bunch of people probably just need something to do with their money.

          Another thing is that probably the biggest difference you can make with a sound system is the room. If your brother doesn’t have the room set up properly, that is going to take a huge bite out of the sound quality.

          On Youtube there are people that post guitar or synth videos. Some of them are capable of picking out incredibly, incredibly subtle nuances in the performance. You may not even notice someone playing a song on the guitar wrong until you hear some one play it right. You also see people pick synth parts out of a composition that I can’t even hear if I try hard…and I considering myself a medium-audiophile.

          I think I am also mad about the skullcandy headphones. They are utter shit. My best headphones are custom molded IEMs that probably provide a bit more sound quality than I can really discern, but they are insanely comfortable, block outside noise, and sound amazing.

  5. The systems designed by Lexicon and Levinson are the best? You don’t say! 🙂

    The thing that has always amazed me is how car makers charge such outlandish prices for audio upgrades which are inferior in every conceivable way to aftermarket equipment which costs half as much. They spend money developing bespoke systems whose only value is to help weigh the garbage heap down so it doesn’t blow away in the wind.

    It has gotten better from both a usability and a sonic perspective in the last…maybe 5 – 8 years. The interface design improvements are often the direct result of incorporating Android Auto or Apple Car Play, though. The interfaces in my 08 STi and 11 Vette were so astonishingly bad it is difficult to believe that the designers weren’t intentionally competing to make the worst one.

    The improvements in sound and interface quality are offset somewhat by the engineered obsolescence of the systems though. No longer do you see standard size components that can be replaced as technology changes. Now everything is proprietary to try to nudge the car towards the junk yard well before it’s time. They’ve also turned everything into a touch screen which is an objectively terrible idea for a system that needs to be operated in a vehicle.

    V shaped sound is great for hiphop, techno, some pop. I would go so far as to say it’s almost desirable for those genres. Unfortunately, for Rock and other genres it is absolutely horrible.

    Agree about imaging and sound stage too. I hate to admit it but I actually enable the sound stage enhancement on my head unit in the Vette. It’s hard for me to swallow after all the time and money that has gone into my components, but even having three ways with the tweeters in the pillars only improves the sound stage a little bit. The correction trickery (I assume it’s mostly just mixing left and right channels a bit) makes a real difference.

  6. I solved my stereo deficiency by adding more power. My ’16 Accord sounded fine, but really couldn’t get very loud. Replaced the plastic speakers with a Skol can size magnet with some decent Focals and a decent Rockford Fosgate amp. Should have gone more than 400W, but on paper they matched the speaker’s specs. The biggest improvement by far was the addition of a AudioControl LC6 line out converter. The EX-L trim stereo has a good condition signal, but the LOC did wonders for the sound. A powered sub rounded out the system.

    Now my only issue is that the flipping Honda (Clarion) HU will fade out one or more speakers randomly. Started happening a few years after the upgrade. Usually hitting the power door locks will restore sound to all 4 corners, but the fade out can happen again at any time. Usually happens a few times every drive. Experts on the interweb thinks the HU needs replacement. $600 to $800 used and $1500+ for new. Which I could use an aftermarket HU, but there are too many vehicle systems integrated into the HU.

    1. Try installing passive loads connected to your hu speaker outputs. You can parallel them with the wires going into your LC6, just make sure all four channels of output have a resistive load on them near 10 ohms at 10 watts. I’ve solved this issue you describe multiple times doing this.

    2. Running a proper LOC to a dedicated amp and power-matched speakers is a good way of upgrading in a stealthy manner. I hear you about networked head units, some of the aftermarket drop-in Android replacements are pretty awesome, but there’s nothing quite like the fitment and look of OEM.

      1. Technically it is possible to put in an aftermarket HU, but it requires that the OEM HU stay wired up and placed in like the glove compartment. I huge wiring undertaking even if you buy a conversion wiring harness off e-bay.

        There are no good alternatives for the EX-L/Touring HU. The lower trims do have some generic Android based HUs that can be found on Amazon and e-bay.

    1. Active noise cancellation really only works with headphones. If you can move your head too much relative to the sound source, microphone, and speakers, it gets hard to do the phase cancellation accurately.

      1. Amen to that. A somewhat successful method of active noise cancellation can be had by emitting the out of phase sound very close to the source of emission, for instance a loudspeaker mounted in a tuned enclosure (usually a sophisticated tube chamber) directly next to an exhaust pipe has been shown to be marginally successful in decreasing exhaust cabin noise.

  7. I run a high school where we have several music technology classes and they focus on mixing and staging live audio. I’ll pass this along! Also, I remember a floppy disk (3.5) Ford shareware program that showed the “quadrophonic” sound stage on a 1989 (I think) Taurus. It was cool to single-digit me…

    1. I won’t lie, I’ve abused some paper cone speakers pretty hard, nuking the units in my old GMT400 one by one. If you listen at low to moderate volumes, aren’t pushing a ton of wattage and keep the speakers out of sunlight, expect a good 30 years or more from OEM speakers. If you blast your tunes with a heavy bass boost, you might get three-to-five years out of some of the really cheap speakers. From my experience, the speakers in Mk6 Volkswagen Jettas are particularly short-lived.

  8. Drop C? Who still uses that? Even most modern radio rock bands are in drop B or A# these days… people figured out that it’s a lot easier to sing in key when the key is lower.

    And in metal, drop A and lower is the new norm now.

      1. Either a heavy 6-string set that’s meant for downtuning, or a 7-string set. Lately I’ve been using the bottom 6 strings of an 8-string set for drop F#… I’ve got a low .74 which is nice to keep the string tension halfway decent.

    1. Drop D is still basically the go to default for metal. Makes switching from doing monophonic power chords a lot easier, because you’re using one finger for two strings. Drop A is for the new school kids who grew up with Djent as the popular highest tier one could achieve as a metal guitarist.

    1. You’re really going to want to run straight through your laptop speakers to get the authentic experience there. But luckily most newer laptops can be powered by USB-C so keeping it charged shouldn’t be an issue.

  9. I don’t think I would say it’s “tricking” consumers. It’s optimizing the audio system based on the internal and external constraints. Now, all of this goes out the window as soon as an owner puts big ‘ol subs and sound bars into a thing totally ruining it… Looking at you dad…. (JK soft top with the most ridiculous sound bar/crash safety risk I’ve ever seen).

  10. What about shitty Logitech PC speakers in the trunk as the only sound system, as the car originally came without a stereo? That’s the Autopian way. You hear just enough of the song that memory can fill in the rest.

    1. My beater 2004 Infiniti G35x has some kind of Bose system in it. I never really paid attention to it because broadcast radio just sounds like garbage on it….but I discovered that there is a bass CD stuck in the changer from the PO and that Bose system will shake the whole car. My kid loves it and I can completely drown out the droning exhaust and tire noise with equally droning bass. Somehow makes all the squeak and rattles seem purposeful. Unfortunately, it won’t play any other CDs and my cassette tape collection is pretty weak.

  11. One thing I’ve noticed in certain cars is definitely the V-shaped equalizer. And it’s *INFURIATING* to a degree that actually makes me angry. I make music as a hobby. I have a full pre-amp, multiple guitars, a stereo attached to my computer, thousands of dollars in audio software, and studio headphones. I know how my own music should sound. And every time without fail the equalization in most modern cars cuts out the mids. It’s either all bass or all high-end. This is exacerbated when the car’s stereo has a built in software level audio compressor. Thanks for that! I know what the attack and decay should be on the audio feed, geniuses! I made the song!

    There are a few cars I’ve driven with Mark Levinson and Harmon Kardon stereo systems. Mostly Lexuses and Kias. And every time there are no mids. It’s all a very crushed high-end, and a deafening level of bass. Tuning the equalizer does nothing, turning off the faux staging does nothing, disabling software levelling does nothing. Listening to a nu-metal song, prog metal, or hard rock? You can’t hear the vocalist, and the guitars get smashed into noise. Listening to trance or new era drum and bass? Good luck hearing the high hats, claps, snares, and lead synths. Listening to jazz, jazz fusion, or acid jazz? All you’ll hear is the tail end of the crash cymbal in the high end, and all the woodwinds will be a wall of noise behind the brass section. Listening to old school hip-hop? Hope you hate everyone in a five mile radius of your car, because the bass is going to shatter windows and give cats and birds heart attacks.

  12. You forgot one of the most popular methods of making the advanced audio systems sound better:
    They use truly pathetic standard equipment stereos that just sound like garbage from a 1930s victrola. Truly awful stuff.

    I’m looking at you, Porsche. Your Bose systems aren’t that great but your customers pay too dollar to get out of the purgatory of your base audio equipment.

  13. The other issue they have to deal with is artificially compressed recordings. The so-called “loudness war” has changed the sound of recordings for the worse – losing dynamic range to get more (not better) sound out of cheap equipment.
    Where you’d want to see some separation in the lower frequencies, it’s all just jammed up into a mushy muddle now, and no amount of audio processing can adequately clean it up.

  14. An ideal solution would be a tiny unity horn with pattern control down to perhaps 200hz due to the inherently small mouth required for use in a vehicle cabin. That, coupled with a pair of eights mounted directly under the feet of the driver and passenger for 50 to 200hz. Finally bass shakers mounted in the seat frame would provide sub frequencies down to as low as the resonant harmonic of the seat and floor assembly.

  15. It’s interesting. I read a great interview with Amar Bose who disputed that a car was a lousy place for a high quality sound. His argument was that a system can be better optimized for a specific car rather than an unknown room because you know to within a few inches where the listener’s ears are going to be.

    Not sure Bose ever pursued this philosophy into actual products, just like their acoustic suspension, which, pun intended, sounds like another Autopean article.

    1. Agree on everyone’s take on most Bose car audio systems…however – the Bose 5.1 Surround Sound system with DVD-Audio (R.I.P.) in my 2005 & 2009 Acura RL was phenomenal! Always sounded amazing – even using just CD’s or MP3 files on a USB stick, but when playing DVD-Audio files, incredible. I still miss that system. The Mark Levinson’s I’ve had since then didn’t hold a candle to those 10+ year older Bose systems. (I realize they were the outliers).

      1. And an addendum – the geek in me actually did an “A vs B vs C” comparison – meaning I found the exact same track on DVD-A, CD, & mp3 (128 & 256) and the difference between the 3 was (to me) noticeable. Especially between DVD-A and the others. Supposedly a DVD-A file held 70 times the data that a CD file held. It’s a shame it failed as a format.

    1. I bet you can’t hear the difference between flac and 192 mp3 in a blind a/b test . I always thought there was a huge difference but when it came down to identifying which was which on a high end Levinson system I simply had to admit there wasn’t enough difference to pinpoint which was which. Same holds true for interconnects, speaker cable, line cords, and tons of other hogwash slop being fed the audiophile consumer.

      1. And who’s actually doing a/b tests in their car anyway? I don’t even care if I _can_ hear the difference as long as it’s good enough that while I’m listening to the compressed audio I’m not thinking “boy, this sounds like compressed audio”.

      2. The more useful question would be at what bitrate do you actually start to notice, and how much does it vary from person to person… but perhaps the cooler question would be if a good enough DAC can make 192kbps sound better than the worse DAC’d device that can play a FLAC file.

      3. I’ve tried a couple A/B tests online and failed rather miserably, but I am still certain there is an audible difference.

        Listening to tracks I know well at high volume on a quality system is where I tend to notice it. I’ve had instances where a song from Megadeth’s Countdown to extinction will come on in the car when I’m listening loud but not thinking about the audio. I will be like, why is this so muddy? It usually turns out that I was shuffling on Spotify rather than listening to my own FLACs. I’ll put on the FLAC and it immediately sounds better.

        Chvches Playing Dead is another track I’ve had this happen on. The synths on the chorus are just so fucking crystal clear, but they’re down a bit in the mix and it is really easy to lose the detail on them. I just did a massive upgrade to my home system, and I am not fully happy with how that track is coming out because the room is not adequately treated and there is too much slap echo. Again it makes it sound muddy.

        I do have some high res FLAC files but CD quality FLAC is where it stops making a real difference for me. I haven’t gotten in to DSD.

  16. First off I am really enjoying the content your putting out. This one struck a chord with me, I grew up in an car and home audio loving family, and worked in that industry from about 2003-2008. One place I worked at was one of the first alpine dealers in Canada so we had a ton of old books and promotional stuff from the 80s and 90s in the basement of the shop. I’m long since divorced from that industry but look back on it’s impact on me and my love for car culture very fondly. Good topic for a series of articles!

  17. Can you do an analysis of the typical Bose sound? Every car I’ve been in with a Bose system sounded terrible. No bass, no treble, muddy midrange. No part of it sounds good. And it seems like they purposely make it sound like that because I’ve heard it in cars from different brands. Why do they do this? Does this sound good to some people? Are they trying to work around cheap components to the best of their ability? What gives?

      1. I had a 2009 Audi A4 (B7) with the bose system. Did some research and found out there was a wire within the harness that if removed unmuddied the sound and opened up the highs and lows. I think it was a money saving way for Audi to use the same basic components in their sound systems. Just add more watts and artificially dampen the sound on the Bose upgrade. Anyway, I did remove that wire and it made a world of difference.

    1. And I should also add that I recently tried a set of the most expensive noise cancelling headphones that Bose makes, and they sounded just as awful as the systems I’ve heard in cars. So the excuse for the really bad sound quality can’t be blamed on the difficult automotive listening environment.

    2. Let me start out by saying I hate Bose. Paper speakers, low sensitivity, custom plastic enclosures to get the most out of their subpar components, amplifiers at the speaker and astronomical prices. Their car systems were a nightmare to work on (worked in a car/home stereo place back in the day).

      Having said all that, the Bose system in my 09 G37 doesn’t sound that bad. I would never choose a Bose system, but I can actually live with the one that came with the car. Just praying none of the speakers/modules die…

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