Home » The Open Secret Behind Most Premium Car Audio Systems

The Open Secret Behind Most Premium Car Audio Systems

Harman International Topshot

If you like music and spend a lot of time in your car, you’ve probably considered popping for a premium audio system. However, with brands like Bang & Olufsen, JBL, Revel, Mark Levinson, Harman Kardon, Infinity, and Lexicon all on deck at various manufacturers, it can be a bit hard discerning what makes certain factory sound systems special. I’ll let you in on a little secret; all of the brands I just mentioned are owned by Samsung subsidiary Harman International.

Throughout its history, Harman has steadily gobbled up automotive audio brands. JBL was among the first, bought out in 1969. Infinity was acquired in 1983, AKG joined the fray in 1994, then Mark Levinson and Revel in 2003. Most recently, Harman International acquired Bang & Olufsen’s automotive division in 2015, before Harman International itself was bought by Samsung in 2017.

Lexus LC Mark Levinson Reference system made by Harman International
Photo credit: Lexus

However, just because all of these brands are owned by Harman International doesn’t mean that every single stereo under these brands will be alike. Let’s start with a really solid example, the 13-speaker Mark Levinson audio system available in the Lexus LC 500. Packing 915 watts of power, this system is a great example of what can be done when product planners know that customers will be serious about sound quality. Thanks to the LC’s fairly high price tag, acoustic engineers were able to produce a system with reasonably low distortion, clean staging, and a relatively balanced sound signature. No wonder it’s a massive hit with LC owners.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the B&O system in the Ford Bronco Sport Outer Banks I tested a few weeks ago. In contrast to the pricey Lexus LC500, this baby Bronco’s premium audio system is part of a $1,285 package on a vehicle that starts at $36,045 (including a $1,595 freight charge). This means that Harman International likely didn’t have a huge budget for equipment and tuning, seeing as the system will have a fairly low take rate and has to recoup development costs while turning Ford a profit. As such, this system was engineered to a lower price point and therefore lacks the quality of higher-end systems.

B And O Audio Speaker

Of course, this audio system monopoly has benefits for car manufacturers. For instance, the new Genesis G90 has a Bang & Olufsen audio system instead of a traditional Lexicon audio system. There’s no change in supplier here, just a change in branding. It’s a similar deal with BMW’s re-adoption of the Harman Kardon brand in the late 2000s. Late E90 3-Series models featured an available Harman Kardon stereo with exactly the same speakers as the earlier Logic 7 system and an interchangeable amplifier. Just slap a new name on it and call it done.

In addition, manufacturers can benefit from shared technologies. Take Clari-Fi, a digital compression restoration algorithm that attempts to reconstruct detail lost to compression. While it’ll never be as good as CD-quality or FLAC files, it’s proliferated across almost every corner of Harman’s car audio empire from the JBL system in a Toyota Camry to the Revel system in a loaded Lincoln Aviator.

Lincoln Nautilus Revel made by Harman International

However, this sharing of brands and technologies results in some audio systems that feel remarkably homogeneous. Compare Harman-made systems in competing cars, and similarities greatly outweigh differences. For example, the available Revel Ultima system in a Lincoln Nautilus features fairly similar sound quality to the Mark Levinson system available in the outgoing Lexus RX in terms of distortion. Due to Harman’s dominance in the automotive space, few premium audio systems really stand out from what competitors have to offer.

Moreover, Harman International has done some really strange things to famous audio brands in pursuit of market share in the automotive segment. The previously-mentioned B&O system in the Ford Bronco Sport Outer Banks is rubbish, which clashes with Bang & Olufsen’s stellar reputation. On the other end of the spectrum, the 36-speaker AKG system available in the Cadillac Escalade features a noticeable bass boost that’s at odds with AKG’s reputation for building reference-grade monitors. Despite the brand on the speaker grilles, it’s hard to know what to expect if Harman International is actually building the system.

Volvo Bowers & Wilkins

However, there are still independent players clawing for market share in the OEM premium audio sector. If you want the best factory stereo in any car under $100,000, pick up a Volvo with the Bowers & Wilkins system. It’s exceptionally clean, balanced, and just joyous in standard studio mode. There’s no staging weirdness, reproduction is great, and overall quality is well worth the steep price tag. On the more reasonable side of things, the Burmester stereo is an $850 option on the Mercedes-Benz GLB and is worth every penny. While it certainly doesn’t have enough bass to rattle windows, distortion is impressively low.

More importantly, new players are either entering or re-entering the automotive space. McIntosh reappeared in several Jeep products, the Lucid Air features Dolby Atmos surround sound, and the new Audi Q4 e-Tron features an available Sonos audio system. The longstanding dominance of Harman International dominance have made things a bit audibly beige, but things are changing.

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114 Responses

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention any Bose options. From my experience they can be a hit or miss, but particularly in Audis of the mid to late aughts they seem to be really good. I have no complaints about the system in our C6.5 Audi A6. It comes with a 5.5″ subwoofer in a 2.5gal bass reflex housing inside each front door and 11 (4 high, 5 mid, and 2 mid/low) speakers throughout the car.
    On the other hand I’ve driven GM products with the Bose “upgrade” that were not anywhere near as good some other manufacturers’ standard systems (Volvo and Saab come to mind).

    1. Agreed. Bose in my Audis gave me some respect for the audio brand.

      However Audis shift to Sonos is a disaster.

      When I get a lone car during servicing, which now feature Sonos, I do what I always do to get Sonos sounding the best. I switch it off.

      Sonos have done absolutely nothing to design for the acoustic interior of a car, so along with their trade mark muddy sound and rubbish DAC harshness, you get interior modal boom.

    2. I had a rental Mazda 6 quite a while back(probably over 15 years ago, when the 6 still had the Taurus V6 as an option), and it exemplified the no highs or lows, it must be Bose.

    3. Few of the Bose upgrades on GM vehicles were all that great until really the 2010s and up. Maybe a Cadillac here or there might sound good, but the rest just seemed to be a replacement for the older “Concert Sound” branding during the 90s and 2000s. By the 2010s though, the Bose systems seemed to have gotten much more special compared to the standard audio. With the Cadillacs and GMC Yukons getting especially fine systems.

  2. I’ve owned over forty cars and the best FACTORY stereo system I’ve ever had in a car was in a 98 volvo. I had a 98 c70 coupe with the optional concert stereo system. This included a changer in the dash, a bulbous center channel sticking out of the dash, and I believe a 12 speaker system. I believe there were 4 8′ speakers along with an assortment of tweeters and midsize speakers. All speakers were made by dynaudio. When you have that many speakers in a coupe size car it’s going to be good. It was AMAZING how loud that system would go without any distortion. And it wasn’t just loud, the headunit had some sort of dolby processing that could sort it all out and make it sound properly. It also had a huge amp in the trunk which I believe was 500 watts. I think they engineered the system for the c70 convertible and when the put a roof on it it just made it that much better. No bluetooth or modern day tech but FM and cd’s sound unbelievable.

    1. Well, statement that so many speakers in tiny space have to sound good is completly wrong..thats just marketing trick and selling point.. there are so many custom built sound systems with just 5 speakers + subwoofer that sound way way better than any factory installed sound system.. I’m in car hifi installatiom buissines for 25+ years and I have listened all big brand systems factory installed in cars and when you look build quality of those speakers, it’s just funny.. amps as well.. and they implement so many equalization to sound that it has nothing to do with real hifi..they are all heavily overpriced for what you get

  3. I paid extra for the HK system in my last BMW. Sounded shit. I paid extra for the Dynaudio in my last Golf R. Sounded shit. But I listened to the standard systems first and they were even shittier. Still better than any Bose of course. But tonight I was passenger in a Merc GLC and the Burmeister sounded excellent, even through Spotify. Range Rover’s various Meridian systems are good too.

  4. As a former “hi-fi” geek, I’ll say that liking music has little to do with liking audio systems. Freeing myself from technical obsession made music more enjoyable for what it is.

    1. It’s so much better when you can let go and stop worrying. The Metcalf fleet has 2 cars that don’t even have radios (CJ never came with one, MGB had stereo removed and never put back by P.O.) and the other 2 are OEM.
      Just enjoy the drive and let the music or whatever add a little bit. The main focus of the drive shouldn’t be the audio experience. Unless you are being driven in an S-Class or Rolls Royce.

    2. Agreed. I have a friend who is a total sound system freak, and was always buying new gear. I listened to his stuff, and make no mistake – it sounded really good. Not enough better than what I had to make me spend the kind of cash he was going through, though. I decided (and told him): I listen to music; I don’t listen to the system.

    1. And this seems to really bother people for some reason. When my brother comes to town he gets in my Outback and usually is like, “I can’t believe you can live with this OEM sound system? It’s not even the nicer version!” And then he gets genuinely mad when I tell him it sounds just fine to me.

      And then we repeat the conversation when he remembers that I dare use the television speakers instead of investing hundreds or thousands into a home audio system.

      If he manages to see my cheapy Skullcandy earbuds, he absolutely loses it. Nah, I’m not buying nice headphones to go get all sweaty at the gym and lose six months from now.

      These people with their magical ears are unbearable and refuse to believe that it sounds just fine to everyone else.

      1. I find the best thing to do is point out that the reason my ears aren’t very ‘good’ is that I spend a lot of time listening to live music. All the audiophiles I’ve met seem to only listen to recorded music for some reason.
        I’m glad I have my ears, the £60 Sony head unit in my car sounds great to me. If I had “better” ears, I’d have to spend much more money to be happy, and that’s money I could be spending on going to gigs.

        1. Everyone has their preferences. I prefer sound that has been engineered to sound as good as possible. Others prefer the live experience. Some love both. None of those opinions are wrong, just a difference in taste.

      2. Audiophiles are a breed apart.

        Years back I helped a friend pick up a used equipment shelf. It’s maybe 2′ x 2′, with 3 layers or so, intended to support small components such as the CD reader.

        That effing thing had (4) 1 1/4″ diameter steel threaded rods as posts. Each shelf weighted maybe 30lbs or so.

        1 1/4″ diameter rods are equivalent to #10 rebars in construction. I’m an effin’ structural engineer and I’ve never used #10 rebars for effin’ buildings I designed.

        Somehow they think a heavy shelf makes the sound more pure. It wasn’t even a speaker stand.

        1. That might have been overkill, but a cheap stand can have nasty vibrations. You need to understand that a system can go well under 20 Hz. Mine can easily. My stand is much cheaper and seems to get the job done.
          Who needs a Corvette? No one. I’d still have one if I could afford it.
          “Audiophiles” can go with crazy expensive pseudo science, but there is also real science involved with more sensible audiophiles.

      3. There is definitely a lot of expensive audio crap that you can waste money on. Thousands blown on things that sound exactly the same in every measurable way but you have to say it’s amazing or admit you got taken….

        But when it comes to TV speakers, you can improve the quality by such a dramatic amount that literally anybody could tell the difference for very little money. It’s hard to see any logic in spending many hundreds or even thousands on a decent TV and then using whatever tiny speakers the thing is pointing at the wall. Even $80 in the soundbar aisle at BestBuy will get you a significant upgrade over what’s in even higher end TVs.

        If you’re getting a little el-cheapo TV too, then by all means use its shitty speakers.

        There’s nothing wrong with Skullcandy earbuds.

      4. I don’t begrudge anyone going down a rabbit hole with whatever hobby they’re into, but no need to be a snob to others who don’t share that interest.

        1. I agree with this, completely I’m an electrical engineer and I actually build and listen to stereo equipment for a living, so go figure !!
          That doesn’t stop me however, from having a ridiculous sound system. Now mind you some of it, because of what I do for a living, I get for free as prototypes and I also build an awful lot of stuff for my self… but if I had to put a price “retail” price on my stereo I’d say an easy $50,000 USD. give or take a few grand…and that’s a two-channel stereo system with two separate 12-in subwoofers. In truth that’s retail price …what I actually spent out of pocket is less than that..I built a lot myself and the rest of my stuff, like I said, I’ve gotten for free. There’s a little rule in the audio industry which a lot of guys don’t like to talk about; markup is king! Generally speaking when we design a product for a fancy audio brand that you would buy retail from “ABC audio store” the markup is astronomical sometimes as high as 10 times the cost of manufacturing. Pretty scary if you think about it!!! In really high end gear.. a good majority is actually spent on the cosmetics/enclosure, because that’s the part that audiophiles look at. Don’t get me wrong, a high-end piece of gear like that is not going to use garbage for components… it can’t because it does in fact need to measure well to justify the price. But in comparison to the art and craftsmanship that it requires to build a really beautiful enclosure the raw material cost of audio components like capacitors and resistors dont cost much. The worst part of it is in most cases the audio dealers are making more profit than the actual manufacturers. As an example an amplifier that I designed for a company …can’t say who… costs $2,932.00 to manufacture and it retails for $13,995 at a very well-known California based audio retailer. They purchased that amplifier from the manufacturer for $5300.

  5. Bose in my A6 Audis ($130k to $150k spec) gave me some respect for the audio brand. I didn’t think much of them otherwise.

    However Audi’s shift to Sonos is a disaster.

    When I get a lone car during servicing, which now feature Sonos, I do what I always do to get Sonos sounding the best. I switch it off.

    Sonos have done absolutely nothing to design for the acoustic interior of a car, so along with their trade mark muddy sound and DAC harshness, you get interior modal boom.

    The only reason I think Sonos exists as a brand, is for the simple multi room set up and streaming. I find their attempts at reproducing music unlistenable.

    I’m an acoustics engineer.

  6. The funny thing is compared to these so-called upgraded sound systems in cars you could do your own upgrade that’s just as good if not better for a quarter of the price. Some decent speakers alone make a huge difference in sound quality.

  7. I used to really hate most of the factory systems, regardless of make/cost, but they are a lot better than they used to be, and changing the HU alone has turned into a giant $$$ hassle, so I’ve been buying at least the mid level system in my last 4 vehicles. My present car, a 2018 Challenger R/T SP, has the Harman-Kardon system in it. The bass is nearly perfect, the interior is totally buzz free, but it has a problem in the upper midrange that my previous Challenger, buzzes and creaks aside, didn’t have. The old car had no real bass, but in general, I liked the sound of it, after replacing the sad dash speakers with JL’s that dropped right in, much better than the H-K setup I have now. My right ear has lost most of it’s high end for some reason, and since then, the H-K doesn’t annoy me as much as it used to. But it still annoys me. I have some really good recordings on the USB stick and they sound, even with my bad ear, great on my home stereo, and on my PC that has an amp, a cheap subwoofer, and a pair of decent bookshelf speakers on it, but not so great in my car. It’s sad, since this is my favorite car I have ever owned. It’s my 18 year old fantasy dream car come true. 485+ HP, fantastic 8 speed trans, crazy good brakes, and comfort way beyond anything from 1974 but the stereo is a disappointment. Can’t win in all areas, I guess.

  8. Best sound system I’ve heard in a car? The Bowers and Wilkins we had in our Volvo XC90. It was a $3300 option and it was worth every penny. Nothing compares. I have an Aviator with the Revel 3D sound now and it’s good but the B&W is an order of magnitude better. I also have a B&O in my RS5 and it’s fine. I’m glad I got it because I can’t imagine the stock system in comparison.

    Now, I am no expert but there was no comparison between those three.

  9. Jeep actually had some significant engineering done on the Alpine system in of all things, the 2015-2018 JK Wranglers. This video goes pretty in depth.

    I had a 2016 with this system and it was impressive, both in quality (while not moving, the Wrangler of course has tons of road noise once on the move), and in listenability with the top down.

    https://youtu.be/b25jj_zzINQ

    1. I also almost forgot to mention the “Fender” branded system in the MK6 Jetta GLi. It was actually made by Pioneer, and they spent several years engineering and tuning it using a recreation of the car’s interior before the vehicle even existed. It sounded amazing for a $30k car with lots of cost cutting elsewhere.

      They took the same system and put it in other VWs afterwards, but without the same level of engineering put into the original in the GLi. They sounded “good”, but definitely not the same.

        1. Nah, that was a few years earlier when they gave away crappy “FirstAct” guitars.

          When the Fender systems came out a number of dealerships had Fender guitars in the showrooms though.

  10. I have never understood the Bose hate. They came out with exception home surround sounds systems in the late 90s.

    I’ve always enjoyed the sound from Bose.

    However, the radio in the car (mine has Bose) is only to provide background when cruising on the highway.

    Any other time, the background is filled with the beautiful soundtrack of the LS3 roaring, snorting and popping. Holden really did a good job on tweaking the exhaust sound on the (in the US) Chevy SS

    1. Hey Spaz, I can easily explain my hatred for Bose. I worked in a car stereo / home theater shop back in the late 90’s (may they RIP), but my hatred for Bose came long before that. When compared to other speakers on the market of similar (or lesser cost) the Bose speakers were incredibly less efficient and their components were of much lesser quality. Their marketing was stellar, but their value was horrible. There’s a reason why Bose systems always had their own separate setup so they could not be demoed against any other brands. I can’t tell you how many times a couple would come into the store to demo speakers and the guy would be blown away by how much better our speakers sounded (we carried Polk Audio and Klipsch) than the Bose and that our prices were lower. That’s about the time his girlfriend/wife would chime in about how much smaller the Bose were and how she didn’t want something that large (small bookshelf) on the wall. Sad to see them leave the store without a decent sound system. If you wanted small speakers that match your wall color then Bose was for you. If you wanted great sound (for the same price or less) with a powered (not passive) sub than we had you covered.

      Their car systems had cheap paper drivers with custom tuned plastic housings with small amplifiers at the speakers making it very difficult to repair or replace. Cars with factory Bose systems were an absolute pain to work on and when one of the speakers or amps failed, it was very expensive to get a replacement. Many a time someone would come in with a bad Bose speaker and we would have to tell them you can’t replace it with a regular speaker, you either have to pay through the nose for a replacement from the dealer or we would have to replace your whole system (head unit and all speakers). You’d end up with a better system, but it would cost you. Either way, it was gonna cost you (unless you got lucky at a scrap yard).

      Overpriced junk about sums it up for me. What they did with that junk via custom enclosures and tuning could be pretty impressive. They squeezed everything they could out of those inefficient paper drivers. With vehicles you often don’t have much of a choice. If your vehicle of choice has a Bose system, what can you do? I had one in my last car and it sounded decent, I just had to hope and pray nothing happened to any of the modules. Gave it to my daughter 2 months ago and she loved it (the car). Unfortunately, Ian showed up and flooded it death. RIP 09 G37 sedan, you served us well.

    2. The problem with Bose was not the quality, it was the quality -for the price-

      They were an early seller of their name. And sold products like they were much more premium than they were.

      That said, the Bose Panaray 36-speaker setup in my Cadillac CT6 is probably the best factory audio I’ve ever had.

  11. I have a 2012 Acura TSX Sportwagon with the optional ELS soundsystem – I think it’s phenomenal for its age. I think ELS is some sort of branch of Panasonic, so it seems to be outside of this Harmen ring, and seems to be exclusive to Acuras. Reviews still seem to say these ELS systems punch above their weight, I know I’d definitely spring for it if I ever bought another Acura.

  12. I love the concept of these things being “developed.”

    What are the development costs of some coked up sales goon picking which premium brand is at the right price/exclusivity level on the scale and then choosing some auto-audio lego out of the catalog to print the name on and plug into whatever speaker holes the manufacturer had room for? Do those costs include drinks at lunch? I’m sure plenty of high end cars have more thought put into the audio system than that. But not mass-market vehicles having a premium audio option added as an afterthought.

  13. I was shocked at how bad the new Mavericks speakers are. I had read a lot of bad reviews on forums but figured people were just expecting too much out of an economy truck.. Boy was I wrong.
    The front ones sound like they are being hidden under buckets and the rear ones sound like transistor radio quality from the 50’s.

  14. The most impressive car stereo I’ve experienced was the “unbranded” premium audio system in the low vin Tesla Model S. Apparently this was a s1nn system. Unfortunately Tesla re-tuned the system around the time of the front-end refresh and it didn’t sound the same after that.

    1. However the standard Sonos system now found in Audi means, as with all Sonos products I’ve experienced through work, you’re better off leaving the stereo switched off.

      Trademark muddy sound, harsh DAC, distortion from speaker surround, and in the loan car Audis I’ve driven, unchecked cabin boom from interior modes.

  15. One thing should be mentioned: all current Harman International products are exceptionally good compared to what was available at similar prices 20 years ago.

    Since every manufacturer only offers one premium branded sound upgrade, what brand is on the grille has never mattered. It only matters what the individual system sounds like.

    A Mark Levinson brand system in a Lexus was never inherently better than a branded system in another car. Listening really is the only useful way to tell. It would be very different if several brands were offered next to each other, and buyers could choose which sound signature they liked better. But that would be an inventory nightmare of options.

    On the plus side, I do think that engineering, innovation and manufacturing efficiencies has snuffed out most of the concept of individual speaker brands needing to have a “signature sound”. Drivers can be so very neutral these days that most of sound quality is left to driver size, crossover selection and equalization.

    And does anyone else remember how incredibly awful Samsung audio products were before they bought Harman International? I don’t like what excessive consolidation does to competition, but Samsung itself never developed any speakers I’d even call passable. So for them, Harman was a great company to buy.

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