The State Of The In-Car-Audio Art

In the ’80s, in-car audio was truly terrible in comparison to modern systems. Today, you get a 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system as standard on a new Ford Expedition Limited – a once-unthinkable luxury. In the past, having to upgrade a factory audio system with an aftermarket installation was very commonplace and some base model vehicles came without any type of audio system at all.

Besides modern cars’ numerous safety features, an audio system has become an expected standard feature, just like air-conditioning and power steering.

Certain car brands create partnerships with audio brands, such as Ford fitting Bang & Olufsen systems that have been designed for certain models sold in the USA, such as Expedition and Explorer. These audio manufacturers then develop audio systems and often even entertainment systems for passengers on the rear seats that are tailored to the specific vehicle and application. This enables OEMs to offer the best experience for audiophiles, often obviating the need for an aftermarket system.

Some Notable Partnerships

Some well-known automotive/audio partnerships include:

  • Jaguar-Land Rover and Meridian: These two British brands are known for installing top-end Meridian audio systems in their vehicles. Some of Meridian’s configurations in terms of the power output and number of speakers are quite similar, but each installation is tailored to the vehicle it’s fitted to. For example, Meridian’s 380-Watt system is typically coupled to 11 to 14 speakers and its 1,300-Watt system to 23 to 26 speakers.
  • Bentley and Naim: Naim is another well-known British maker of audio equipment and merged with Focal – a French manufacturer of audio systems – in 2011. Bentley is known for using high-end Naim systems in its vehicles since 2008 and the Bentley Bentayga SUV is fitted with a 590-Watt system with 12 speakers, which is upgradable to a 1,780-Watt system with 20 speakers that deliver superb audio performance and extremely clear acoustics.
  • Lincoln and Revel: Lincoln has been fitting Revel systems in its vehicles since 2015 and these are tailored to the specific model they’re fitted to. Even the compact Corsair crossover SUV can be had with the full-size Navigator’s 14-speaker audio system; the Navigator can optionally be ordered with a Revel Ultima 20-speaker setup, which is standard on the flagship Black Label. The system can further be expanded to incorporate a rear-seat entertainment system in the Navigator. To further refine your acoustic experience in your Lincoln, the company has been working with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to help compose Lincolns’ in-car chimes for alerts such as doors ajar.
  • Acura and Panasonic: Acura has also stuck to its country of origin by partnering with the Japanese audio-equipment manufacturer Panasonic since 2004. One of the results of this partnership is the current ELS STUDIO 3D audio system standard in many Acuras such as the TLX and which offers truly astounding sound staging and quality. It is a 17-speaker installation with 16 channels and can play audio in genuine 5.1 surround sound. The ceiling-mounted overhead speakers contribute to the true 3D experience.
  • Chevrolet and Bose: The collaboration between Chevrolet and Bose dates back to 1984 and Bose is also responsible for the audio system in the C8 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray. Comprising 14 speakers – the most Bose has ever installed in a two-seater coupe – the Corvette’s system also includes two 10-inch subwoofers. This makes for an extremely professional installation and a surprising level of sound reproduction in the Corvette’s price class.
  • McLaren and Bowers & Wilkens: For the new McLaren GT, nothing less than a top-flite audio experience would do and for this, McLaren has partnered with British audio brand Bowers & Wilkens to design a 12-speaker premium system that even incorporates McLaren’s weight-saving philosophy by using Kevlar for the mid-range drive units and with carbon fiber available to fashion the sub-bass woofers from. The dash-top tweeters help to reduce coloration and ensure top-quality sound reproduction.

Some other famous audio brands that supply to the automotive industry include:

  • Alpine
  • Blaupunkt
  • Burmester
  • Dynaudio
  • Harman Kardon
  • Focal
  • JVC
  • Nakamichi
  • Mark Levinson

Doing Your Own Thing

If you don’t have a car with a top-end audio system, you can always build up your own. There is a massive variety of aftermarket DIN and double-DIN head units available, as well as countless configurations of amplifiers and speakers. It simply depends on how much you want to spend. Unless you’re a professional, we don’t recommend installing a complicated system yourself and rather have it done by a shop. Some head units incorporate entire infotainment systems with apps, a touchscreen, Bluetooth, navigation, and many other features to upgrade your car’s tech.

You’ll need to do a lot of research, but it all boils down to these four considerations:

  • The head unit/stereo
  • The amplifier(s)
  • The speakers
  • The budget – which includes installation

Conclusion

Some of today’s audio systems fitted at the factory by car manufacturers are so good that we no longer need them to upgrade them to get our music to the desired standard. Big brands have collaborated with famous audio houses to bring us the type of integration and sound staging only possible from a factory-engineered system and it is unlikely that a top-end Bentley could be improved on this score.

However, there is plenty of room for improvement in many normal cars’ systems. However, here you have one of two choices – even opt for the top available system offered by the manufacturer or do your own thing. 

Try out the factory audio system on your test drive. You might find that it is adequate. However, it is often still not good enough, leaving you to consult the aftermarket experts to install a new system for you. Do your homework and review every brand and installer until you have found your match.

Don’t go overboard with an overly expensive system that eats up your cargo space if you still need your car to have everyday usability. You can have a well-balanced system at a fair price and substantially upgrade your in-car experience.

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