The futile pursuit of HiFi on the road.

Whether you’re shopping at the ‘sensible family car’ end of the market, or considering spending gigabucks on a serious luxury bruiser, you’re likely to find an upgraded audio system on the options list.
Their names are eyecatching – Harmon Kardon, Bang and Olufusen, even the contraversial BOSE carries a certain amount of cachet, and the packages they’re attached to can be impressively sophisticated. You’ll invariably find a generous sprinkling of speakers, a subwoofer or two and perhaps a digital sound processor for ‘concert hall’ effects. In the showroom, when spinning a favourite CD (or an MP3 if you’re one of these modern people) as a pre-purchase test, it’ll sound very impressive indeed.
The problem comes when you hit the road.

Several of the cars I’ve recently driven have enjoyed range-topping audio systems. There’s been a Kia with Harmon Kardon equipment, A Mercedes with Burmester gear and a Range Rover with the Meridian setup, and every one of them was a big improvement on the equipment fitted as standard.
Of course, the differences are nuanced between the different cars, but every one provided greater vocal clarity, more delicate treble and a far more potent bottom end when I gave it a static audition. This is excellent news if you’re buying a car to sit and enjoy music in. If you’re planning to drive anywhere, though, there’s a problem, though, and in many cases it’s a big one.
Upgraded car audio tends to be accompanied by a load of other gew-gaws and must-have doo-dads. Whether the Hi-Fi package is an added feature that comes with an upscale trim level, or if it’s a choice pick from the options list, it’s likely to be accompanied by a set of lavishly trimmed leather seats, the ‘exclusivity’ of privacy glass, and almost always, a set of monstrous alloy wheels. The latter only add to a problem that has plagued car audio since the car radio first crackled from the dashboard. Background noise.

To give a car stereo half a fighting chance to combat the chorus of wind, engine and tyre noise, it might have almost a kilowatt of power behind it, and we’re talking proper, full-fat RMS watts not the fanciful MPO measurement printed on $50 ‘bass cannons’. Consider that a good domestic hi-fi will fill a good-size room with 30 watts per channel, and that an efficient,  sensitive set of speakers will do remarkable things with just a handful of watts from a valve amplifier. The difference is that the only background noise your domestic system has to overcome is the distant hum of your refrigerator.
A look at the specifications list on cars with factory audio upgrades may list endless clever electronic trickery, but I’ve never seen extra sound-deadening on the list. Sadly, this is very unlikely to change, because really effective sound deadening material tends to be seriously heavy. A really good pair of hi-fi speakers tends to be seriously weighty, and it’s for good reason, dampening out unnecessary resonances and ensuring that the sound you hear only comes from where it should – the loudspeaker cones and maybe a bass port.
Weight is the enemy of efficiency when it comes to the car, so they tend to have only the sound deadening necessary to equal, or marginally improve on, the standards of their immediate competition. Designing and building a car is all about striking a compromise between what’s possible and what’s doable within a given cost envelope. A fantastic stereo upgrade may well be available, but it usually only sounds better than the stock system because it can shout over the background roar with greater authority.
There is, of course, anti-noise technology, as used by sound-cancelling headphones. This performs black magic by playing opposing frequencies to ‘cancel out’ – or at least create the illusion of cancelling out – low-frequency constant background noise. It can be quite effective, but it can’t eliminate the disturbance, it can only mask it.
There is some good news – although it comes in a sinister wrapper that’s likely to change the face of driving for ever.
War is gradually being waged on vehicle emissions. A look at a spec-sheet will show that big wheels add to a car’s CO2 emissions, due to increased rolling resistance. And with that friction comes extra noise. Vehicle aerodynamics are better than they’ve ever been, and while this means that wind noise is at an all-time low, there’s still work to be done. Fortunately, energy-efficiency is right at the top of the car-development priority list, and a by-product of low-friction running is low interior noise. Good news for our ears, good news for our Hi-Fi equipment.
Bad news for internal combustion, though. The best Hi-Fi listening environment on wheels can be found in an electric car, with muted transmission noise, skinny, low-resistance tyres and carefully managed airflow. For the big gain in musical thrills, though we lose out on a rousing exhaust note. The sad thing is that the two just can’t live together when a car is in motion. I drove a Lexus LC500 the other day. A thrilling experience, both for its visceral V8 goodness, and its Mark Levinson hi-fi system. Both are awesome, but you can only really get the best out of them one at a time.
(Images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2017)

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21 responses to “The futile pursuit of HiFi on the road.”

  1. I_Borgward Avatar

    Since the early 80’s, I’ve suffered with all kinds of junk to try to have music while I drive. Cassette decks, fancy tuners, speakers in doors, in and on package shelves and mounted in too many different boxes to even recall. Booster amps, better wiring, a quest for wattage. Expensive stuff, mediocre stuff, cheap stuff.
    The best of all the car stereo setups I’ve ever had? A small pair of 50-year-old AR bookshelf speakers (free), my iPhone and the mighty Lepai LP-2020a amp ($25 all day long), all mounted in my Econoline for a camping trip this summer. I really wasn’t expecting much, but I could scarcely believe how nice it sounded, clear and loud with plenty of bass, even over the rumble of the highway.
    The moral? Technology, my friends. You can find gear for next to nothing now that walks all over the crap we used to spend cubic bucks on. Given that, I’m not sure what the motivation for spending thousands on a factory stereo setup would even be nowadays. Of course, I remember when a factory FM radio used to be several hundred of dollars, too (put THAT in an inflation calculator and gasp).

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      Plugging scrap into scrap to get the best results…this is the right community, I guess. I have much the same approach at home, with my comrades wondering why I haven’t installed wireless this, wireless that etc., until they actually hear what we have and figure it is good enough. Doesn’t always work though, in the basement I have six speakers connected to an old stereo that just can’t balance the bass right. In the car? 8$ MP3 stereo from China with awful OEM speakers without any depth. I prefer silence anyway.

      1. WinstonSmith84 Avatar

        AR2ax speakers were $209.00 a piece fifty years ago. They’re the opposite of cheap crap, provided the woofer surrounds on yours didn’t dry out and disintegrate like mine did.

        1. I_Borgward Avatar

          I used a pair of AR4x speakers. I believe they have cloth surrounds instead of foam, so they’re still in good shape.
          I also have the AR5 model for my home stereo, and a pair of AR2ax with rotted surrounds that are awaiting a refoaming. The last time I checked, you could still get factory replacement speakers for most models, and refoaming kits are easy to find online. I’ve done both over the years.
          So, yeah, decent speakers help. On the other hand, my Volvo sedan has a pair of generic 6x9s in the trunk and two 4.5″ door speakers. I use the same Lepai amp and my iPhone with that set up, and the results are still pretty decent, if not exactly high fidelity. You can hear the highs and lows over the engine and road noise, which is really saying something in that car. What makes the difference? Clean, full range digital audio (i.e. iPhone, MP3 player) and a modern (yet cheap) switching amplifier, both things I would have loved to have back in the day instead of cassettes, expensive head units and unweildy, power-consuming booster amps.
          To bring this back around: technology, my friends.

          1. onrails Avatar

            I knew I liked you guys… AR in the house here, too. I’m starting to plan out finishing the basement and don’t really know which way to go for sound. My floorstanding AR’s are still in good shape but space will be at a premium. Looking into Cambridge Audio but not sold on anything yet.

          2. I_Borgward Avatar

            Those old tube AM car radios definitely had a charm to them. Many were really excellent performers, too, back when DXing a distant station was actually worth the trouble.

        2. Sjalabais Avatar

          I figured the point was what once was considered valuable, turns into scrap in the eyes of the fashion-following, theme-nerd-enthusiast. It’s no less valuable for the average ‘verse-reader, with the added benefit of low cost.

          1. I_Borgward Avatar

            I’ve lived much of my material life with old tech and cast-offs. Less out of necessity, more out of a repair rather than replace aesthetic.

    2. outback_ute Avatar

      I’ve never upgraded a car sound system, although that may change soon.
      My first car had am/fm radio, second a tape player. Now I mainly use a
      USB drive for music and podcasts although the radio still gets some
      Recently did a 1000 mile trip with my mate in his old car
      that didn’t even have a blanking plate let alone a stereo – he did have a
      portable speaker so we could play via bluetooth or USB even if it
      struggled for volume at highway speeds.
      I’d like to get a simple USB/BT input version of the Lepai amp to put in my old car that also never had any form of audio from the factory, even a DIN unit seems like overkill.
      On the other hand my home stereo is a humble 20W/channel amp that I’ve never turned past 3-1/2 out of 10 on the volume scale – that was at neighbour-complaint levels of volume. Normal listening level is below 1 out of 10. Mind you the 20W is at a fairly low level of Total Harmonic Distortion percentage, which is another avenue to quote a higher than realistic power level.

  2. Mike Zaite Avatar
    Mike Zaite

    Only radio question I care about when shopping.
    “Do it have a line input?”
    Followed by if no, is it a standard DIN.
    People are just too obsessed with music.

  3. Zentropy Avatar

    I have never even turned on the stereo when evaluating a car. It’s never anything I’ve given the slightest consideration.

  4. nanoop Avatar

    HiFi and food have in common that under a minimum price it’s usually not enjoyable, and above a certain threshold, twice the price is not twice as good. They also have in common that the better products are marketed and priced through scarcity, exclusivity and a good dose of beliefs. Both disciplines require training to play the game, and at a certain level just become ridiculous,or philosophical: am I supposed to use listening equipment that is better than the production rig? Is Beaujolais Primeur good /because/ it is not mature? Isn’t it cheaper and more fun to have a real, even mediocre jazz band in your home once a month, instead of those speaker cables?
    For me, listening to music is an intellectual strain, so I prefer silence or spoken word content while driving. Anything above five speakers is wasted on me.

  5. kogashiwa Avatar

    My first car system Back In The Days Of Way Back When, in my VW Jetta GLI, consisted of … I think it was a Nakamichi deck? and some 3.5″ coaxials that I don’t recall, no rear speakers, and an Alpine 10″ sub in a sealed box, all powered by a four-channel amp that I also don’t remember, with around 360 watts. Sounded amazingly good for what it was (that is to say, still not great but it “thumped” which at a certain age is the main thing), but yeah in that ’86 Jetta at highway speeds it was impossible to hear any fine details, or medium details, or quite large details, or in fact anything masquerading as a detail at all.
    Then in my B3 Passat (I hadn’t learned my lesson on German cars, but was about to), I had five Pioneer 6.5″ coaxials with the horn tweeters, one as a centre channel, a 12″ Hsu Research sub (excellent unit, highly recommend), and a six-channel Sony amp with a mere 30W per channel that performed way above its specs. Don’t recall deck but it might have been Nakamichi again. Sounded legitimately, no excuses, good. And once again, worthless above 30 km/h.
    After that I gave up.
    I think the stock Bose system in my Q45 sounded better than any other system I’ve had, mainly because the car was quiet on the highway. But still, compared to any home system whatsoever – just a constant disappointment. Maybe the thing to do is never listen to the same music in the car as at home?
    At any rate, very much looking forward to your LC500 impressions. My new dream car, honestly. Give me a silver one with the V8. I feel like it’s the last of its kind. If I ever manage to get one it would be something to hang on to for life.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Unfortunately, my day-job prevents me from “reviewing” the LC500. I can opine, though, that it’s a hell of a piece of kit, but not quite the express gentleman’s cruiser I was hoping for.

  6. Fred Talmadge Avatar
    Fred Talmadge

    I’m old enough to remember 8 track tapes, underdash units, lousy speakers mounted in door panels or rear parcel shelves and zero insulation. Even worse when mounted in clapped out TR4s. So most modern cars have pretty decent stereos as standard. Good enough that I don’t want to pay the extra thousand or what ever for the upgrade. All I’ll insist on now is bluetooth and USB

  7. mdharrell Avatar

    I prefer to collect and install OEM radio blanking plates. Their performance has proven to be consistent over the years, so I’ve never felt inclined to upgrade them.

    1. Monkey10is Avatar

      Have you REALLY never been tempted to upgrade to one of the more sophisticated aftermarket blanking plates?

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        I prefer OEM whenever available. I view aftermarket blanking plates as stopgap measures.

        1. I_Borgward Avatar

          I’m partial to the “rat rod” look, myself: a hole where the radio used to go with a few stray wires lurking inside.

  8. Ted Odell Avatar
    Ted Odell

    Pardon my pedantic comment…..
    A small technical correction; noise cancellation works by issuing a signal of the same frequency that is 180 degrees out of phase with the incident sound wave (background noise). This produces destructive interference canceling the background noise.