Automobile audio needs improvement

Audio quality is finally getting more attention from the streaming services and now it’s time for the car manufacturers to pay attention. With Apple, Amazon and Qobuz now offering hi resolution audio, we need to improve the hardware in the cars to hear the music at its best. Streaming has become the default source in the car, replacing FM radio and memory cards. That because it’s easy to connect to these streaming services via cell networks or in-car WiFi, that are getting faster and less costly.

We’re often in our car for hours at a time, essentially cocooned – a perfect environment for listening to great music.  The problem is that auto manufacturers have not yet stepped up with the hardware that’s a match for the improved audio. The quality of the  car’s audio sources – AM and FM radio, Sirius XM, and even CD, are below the quality of the hi res streaming files.  Sirius and radio delivers only about 10% of the quality and CD just 25%.

While car audio used to be about using quality components in the head unit and high quality speakers to play high quality tapes, that focus has moved to a marketing-driven approach that focuses on branding and superfluous features.  Many of the audio companies, such as Bose and Harman-Kardon, design the audio systems for the automakers, and the incentive is to add more speakers and more gadgetry. The ideal audio system for an automobile is quite simple. It consists of a quality electronics that include a DAC that converts the streaming digital files to analog and a high quality amplifier.  These components insure that the accuracy of the original digital files are preserved and representative of the original music when they play through the speakers. The speakers are tuned and positioned to optimize the sound quality for the driver and passengers.

But if you look at today’s automobile sound systems, they’re nothing like this. Instead, the digital streaming file goes through a myriad of electronic devices that process and manipulate the original audio, so that it ends up sounding nothing like what the artist created. The digital sound files are heavily manipulated using digital sound processing to introduce all sorts of special effects that apparently the automobile companies think we want, all at the expense of the original sound file. We get sound effects to simulate a concert hall or a theatre. We get effects to alter the original balance of the frequencies, and we even get the background sound of a revving engine to make the car sound more powerful. And instead of one or two pair of high accuracy speakers with a high quality DAC, we might get 15 to 20 cheap speakers imbedded throughout the car, each with a cheap DAC, that delivers something far removed from the original content. As a result, our auto sound system sounds nothing like what we’d hear from a good component audio system in our home or from a pair of good headphones.

If you read the descriptions from the car sites, there’s a focus on surround and 3D sound, “thumping bass” with multiple woofers, and speakers all around us. Surround and 3D sound might be okay for movies to put us in the center of the action, but not for listening to a concert orchestra or a popular music group.

One of these days a car company will get the idea to “invent” something new. An audio system in your car using far fewer, but higher quality components to match the sound we enjoy while sitting in our living room chair.

by Phil Baker