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)