Harman's Wireless CarPlay May Offer Hope for Audio

I am not a fan of Bluetooth. In particular, I regard Bluetooth audio as the worst thing to happen to audio fidelity in 20 years. When Harman first announced its wireless CarPlay technology, I recoiled at the thought of yet another wireless audio option. But, now I see there is a glimmer of hope.

First, why do I loathe Bluetooth audio? Because to convey audio, the Bluetooth SBC codec data-compresses the signal; it's like sending your music though an MP3 player. The proliferation of Bluetooth audio devices has vastly accelerated the ongoing degradation of audio fidelity. Yes, technologies such as aptX Bluetooth sound better than regular SBC Bluetooth, but it's still imperfect. Moreover, Apple does not use aptX.

CarPlay is an Apple technology designed to integrate Apple phones with automobile infotainment systems. When you connect an iPhone to a CarPlay-equipped vehicle via a USB cable, the two work in unison so you can use the car's system to control the iPhone and use its features, for example, Siri. In theory, CarPlay is a step in the right direction. iPhones are smarter and more versatile and more current than most factory infotainment systems, so CarPlay makes them better.

However, in reality, CarPlay performance is a mixed bag. It works great in many implementations, but in some cases the system is slow and buggy. The biggest problem, in my mind, is that in some implementations, audio quality using CarPlay's wired USB connection actually sounds worse than a Bluetooth connection. What the heck? A wired connection that should sound much better than wireless in fact can sound worse. This plunges me into deep sadness.

Now, Harman is rolling out wireless CarPlay in select vehicles. I have not listened to it yet. We already know that wired CarPlay can have issues, but will wireless Carplay be better, or worse? And how will it compare to Bluetooth? A Harman press release gives me great hope. If I understand correctly, Harman uses Bluetooth to initially connect to CarPlay, then switches over to WiFi for data transfer. This implies that it does not use Bluetooth for audio communication. This is terrific news. With a WiFi connection, you can potentially achieve excellent audio fidelity. But also in theory, wired CarPlay should always sound better than Bluetooth. All I can hope for is this: Wireless CarPlay will use WiFi to its best advantage and as this technology appears in more vehicles, consumers will get the best of both worlds: the convenience of wireless, and the audio fidelity of WiFi. Why Apple originally launched CarPlay without this vital feature is beyond me.

Incidentally, many news stories have recently appeared, stating that the new BMW 5 Series sedan is the first vehicle to have Harman's wireless CarPlay. However I believe that wireless CarPlay is already in a number of vehicles; the new 5 Series is only the most recent. Your recent model BMW might already have wireless CarPlay. Also, the Alpine iLX-107 head unit has the technology. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, conventional CarPlay vehicles cannot be upgraded to wireless via software; entirely new hardware is needed. To use wireless CarPlay, you'll need at least Apple iOS9; there have been some reports that the technology is quite buggy with iOS10, but is improved with subsequent iOS versions.

I don't know why car audio/smartphone integration is so complicated, but it is. When I get a chance to listen to Harman's wireless CarPlay, I'll let you know if we finally have a convenient, high-fidelity solution, or just more bad sound.

javanp's picture

If Carplay system is transferring the data over Wifi, doesn't that mean it's just the files, and not the decoded audio signals themselves that are being transmitted? If some wired applications sound worse than blutooth, I don't imagine that Wifi would improve anything unless the circuitry in the car's audio system has also been improved.

thehun's picture

so no need to be down on BT, we just need the adoption from car stereo makers to accelerate to take advantage of these new codecs. Maybe this will be a good reason for you to rid yourself from the dumb Apple products captain Divx.