Sound On Wheels: Who Makes The Best Luxury Car Audio System?

Many people spend as much or more time listening to music in their cars as they do at home. Between a demanding job and a busy family life, the drive to and from work may be the easiest or even the only time to immerse yourself in music. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The best OEM (original equipment manufacturer) audio systems supplied with luxury automobiles these days are designed by well-respected home audio brands, and the car environment, despite a few caveats, allows engineers to factor in the known acoustics of the vehicle and the location of the listeners’ ears to create a highly controlled sonic experience.

With this in mind, I excitedly traveled to Detroit last fall to assist our sister publication Automobile in a comparison of OEM car audio systems in eight 2015 and 2016 car models. Working with Automobile’s daily news editor Jake Holmes, who conceived and headed up the project, we spent three days conducting listening tests and informal acoustic measurements on vehicles ranging from a $54,000 Ford Explorer to a $427,000 Bentley Mulsanne. As we quickly found, no two of them sounded alike.

The Tests
An audiophile-quality automotive sound system should accomplish much of what we expect in a great home hi-fi setup, though the car environment offers unique challenges. First, the system ideally needs to present an engagingly wide and three-dimensional soundstage that rides nicely above the dashboard—something that’s harder to do than it sounds. It should have wide frequency range that doesn’t exaggerate or attenuate any part of the sonic spectrum, and good timbral accuracy so instruments and voices sound natural. It requires powerful dynamics to deliver visceral impact on transients (like a drum thwack or plucked string), the ability to reveal detail at both low and loud volume, and enough amplifier headroom to sound unforced even when the system is fighting with everyday road noise. Finally, the car itself needs to be free of distracting rattles or panel resonances excited by the audio system.

To see how the systems compared, we played the same mix of CD music tracks on all the vehicles, listening both in the quiet Automobile test garage and on the same stretches of road at both city and highway speeds (40 mph and 65 mph, respectively). About 10 or 11 tracks ended up in heavy rotation, including a variety of audiophile-quality jazz, classical, pop, and rock recordings that had among them some close-miked male and female vocals. Evaluations were based primarily on the driver-seat experience, though we listened in the passenger and rear seats as well.

Additionally, we played some test tones and made perfunctory measurements using commonly available equipment. We took a baseline frequency response trace of each system’s best-sounding or most “audiophile-like” sound mode using a pink noise test track, an inexpensive calibrated measurement mic, and an iPad Air 2 running the spectrum analyzer from the popular Audio Tools app. We ran a descending low-frequency sweep tone (1,000 hertz to 20 Hz) to get an idea of where each system’s bass response audibly dropped off, and to see if we could excite any rattles or panel resonances.

We also took SPL (sound pressure level) measurements of each car’s baseline road noise at city and highway speeds—with the audio system off—and did a spectrum analysis of the road noise alone in each vehicle, at both driving speeds, to see where its major frequency components sat. It’s worth noting here that although some cars were quieter than others overall, the spectrum analysis revealed that the road noise always had essentially the same frequency component, and it was always in the low end, typically rising in SPL from 120 Hz downward and peaking in the 30-to-60-Hz range. I can’t say this emphatically enough: Road noise kills bass. A system’s ability to overcome this while driving is dependent on how deep and dynamic it is to begin with. But even on the best systems played at any volume, road noise noticeably masked low-frequency detail and impact that was evident in our stationary listening tests. If you want to hear your new car audio system at its best, don’t leave the garage. My observations below are based on our stationary evaluations.

The Systems
Here are the systems, presented as we ranked them. For each car, I’ve indicated the sticker price, who built the audio system, and whether it was included as standard for the designated trim package or subject to an upcharge. You can read more in Automobile’s April issue or on

No. 8: Ford Explorer, $55,915; 12-speaker Sony Audio System (standard on Platinum trim)
Jake selected this Explorer to give us a read on a typical “premium” system in a more affordable vehicle. But its failure was not in its simplicity, but rather in Sony’s decision to include poorly executed and, unfortunately, undefeatable spatial processing. Neither the Surround mode nor the alternate Stereo mode was absent to some degree of phasey, reverberant artifacts. Additionally, soundstaging was poor compared with the competition—in either mode, lead vocals appeared just left of center and barely above the dash for the driver, but the front passenger always heard it coming out of the nearby right-side pillar. The system had reasonably good detail reproduction on the mids and highs but lacked any deep bass or real dynamic impact, and we found an exceptionally loud and nasty panel resonance in the driver’s door that vibrated badly when excited by a 60-Hz tone.

No. 7: Infiniti QX80 AWD, $89,845; 13-speaker Bose Premium Audio System (standard)
Although all the systems had adjustments for bass and treble (in some cases, multiband EQ), this was the only place we reached for them. It took no time at all to start cranking on the treble in an attempt to restore the obviously missing high-frequency detail, sparkle, and openness found in the better systems. This somewhat darker voicing may have been intentional to mask the potential harshness of poor-quality radio broadcasts or low-res Internet streams/MP3s, but it took all the magic out of my favorite classic audiophile recordings. For example, “Take the A Train,” a superbly natural and startlingly dynamic recording by Bill Berry and His Ellington All-Stars (from the album For Duke), suffered muted horns, a lack of air around the instruments, and virtually no detail at all in the fine brushed cymbals. Bass response went reasonably low in this system, tailing off around 40 Hz or so in our tone sweeps, but it lacked the transient impact of the best.

No. 6: Mercedes S550 4Matic, $125,525; 13-speaker Burmester Surround Sound System (standard)
Given the cost of this opulent sedan and a system by the respected Burmester brand out of Germany, I expected an audiophile sensibility. And we got it—kind of. The system had nicely extended frequency response and natural timbre from the mids to highs, and though it lacked the very deep and impactful bass response of our best contenders (dropping off around 45 Hz in our sweeps), it still delivered a full, rich sound. This was also, by a noticeable margin, the quietest of the cars we tested, topping out at 82 decibels at highway speed, while most of the other interiors suffered more than 90 dB of background road noise.

Its Achilles’ heel, for me at least, was its soundstaging, which presented each front-seat listener with their own compressed left-to-right stage rather than a single continuous soundstage atop the dash. There was little space between instruments, shortened front-to-back depth (a challenge to begin with in the car environment), and an unnatural forcing of tight vocals toward the listener’s face. The big, close-miked ballad “Stand Me Up” by singer-songwriter Micah Sheveloff from the album Exhibitionist normally comes off with a thrilling intimacy that puts the singer in the room with you, but here he was uncomfortably close to my nose and emanating from the dashboard at chest height. Flipping on Surround mode brought the stage up only a bit higher. Some might like the presentation, but this isn’t a system I’d personally want to listen to every day.

No. 5: Acura RLX, $66,870; Krell 14-speaker Premium Audio System (standard on Advance trim)
This Krell system was mostly extraordinary. It had great natural timbre and extremely wide frequency range, including some of the most impactful bass of any system—we measured usable response in the 30-to-35-Hz area, and, critically, it had serious transient response that gave drum thwacks from the dynamic Sheffield Drum Record a visceral leading edge and rich decay. The staging put instruments and voices in a wide arc above the dash and delivered excellent space around them, and the DTS Neural mode was effective in improving depth on orchestral recordings without adding offensive artifacts (though it widened lead vocalists somewhat unnaturally).

What kept the system from ranking higher were its door-mounted, magnesium-cone tweeters, custom drivers that contributed to the system’s remarkable clarity and transparency but also tended to localize highs to the speaker, regularly drawing the listener’s attention away from the otherwise cohesive soundstage. They could also be exceptionally revealing of recording quality, which was great with our better tracks but could move into occasional brashness on some recordings. Too bad, because this really was otherwise among the best of the lot and got my audiophile juices flowing.

No. 4: Volvo XC90 TC AWD, $66,705; 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins Premium Sound System ($2,500 upgrade)
We’re moving now into systems with no immediately detectable flaws, and it’s hard to overstate the all-around excellence of this B&W system. The number of times I used the word clean in my listening comments with regard to different music tracks speaks to its authority and lack of distortion. Bass was deep and tuneful (falling off around 35 Hz on our sweep), and the system played loud with ease and delivered mid- and high-frequency detail without ever going shrill. The high-register solo violin that opens Amanda Marshall’s “The Gyspsy” (from Everybody’s Got a Story) was a torture test the B&W passed with flying colors.

The soundstage presentation was always wide open and up top in true audiophile tradition (though I’d stay away from the reverberant Gothenburg concert hall mode). Note that the system lacked a CD player, requiring us to pump lossless rips of our test tracks into the Aux input from my Macbook via a Sony PHA-2 portable DAC, which gave the system an exceptional source. But with a decent hi-res portable player or high-quality digital music on my smartphone, I could happily climb into this car every morning.

No. 3: Bentley Mulsanne, $427,400; 20- speaker Naim for Bentley Audio System ($8,030 upgrade)
The pricey audio system in this expensive coach was so good that Jake and I decided to look past the one unforgivable sin we detected in our test vehicle: a loose rear package tray (leather-wrapped plastic, we surmised) that rattled noticeably when excited by sustained bass notes somewhere in the 50-to-100-Hz range. It’s clearly something the folks at Naim never signed off on, and something I’d expect a Bentley dealer would set a team of 40 white-coated minions to correct if you sent your chauffeur in to have it fixed. At least, they ought to.

That said, this system was quite engaging, with an incredibly wide and open soundstage above the dash (we slightly preferred the Balanced listening mode), remarkable dynamic build you could discern easily in orchestral swells and vocal changes, and transparent, distortion-free mids and highs. Its detailed bass went low and had solid transient impact, but if the system had a sonic flaw (and I’m reaching here), it lacked that last bit of bottom-end depth you’d like to feel in the chest and that some of the competition delivered. On the plus side, this was (not surprisingly) among the best-sounding systems from the back seat when set to Rear listening mode.

No. 2: Lincoln MKX Black Label AWD, $67,020; 19-speaker Revel Ultima Audio System (standard on Black Label or included with $4,400 Luxury Package upgrade)
This 19-speaker system from Harman’s high-end Revel brand made everything sound great. I’d call its overall sonic character open and analytical in the best sense of that word, where you can hear into the music and pluck out instrumental lines and fine textural details but without it ever sounding bright or edgy. It revealed all the musical detail in my audiophile recordings across the entire frequency spectrum, excelling against the competition in the bass region, where it went low and had exceptional dynamic leading-edge impact and decay reproduction on things like the Sheffield Drum Record and orchestral tympani strikes. Mids and highs floated transparently in an absolutely huge soundstage above the dash that was really only rivaled by the Naim and the Range Rover Meridian systems (see below), if at all. In short, the Revel system delivered a classic home audiophile experience on wheels.

No. 1: Land Rover Range Rover Sport, $92,347; 23-speaker Meridian Signature Audio System ($3,250 upgrade)
Given the fine competition here and how eminently listenable those systems proved, it’s hard to find fresh vocabulary to explain why this Meridian-built system rose to the top. But it was a favorite from the moment we stepped into the car early in our auditions and remained the one to beat. The 2D Meridian mode delivered a classic audiophile soundstage, and the system was incredibly smooth and clean in its delivery; free of strain no matter how complex the music or how loud it played. Bass had a visceral quality and was extremely tuneful and satisfying, never thumpy. Every last bit of detail in piano notes, guitar plucks, horn blasts—whatever—revealed itself with sharp precision and inner texture, presented in its own space high above the dashboard.

All of the top four systems had that special quality that makes you want to dive into your stack of discs and pull out more and more of your favorites, just to see how they’ll fare and find whether you’ll somehow hear them anew. But, for whatever reason, the Range Rover Meridian system had a little more of that secret sauce. After the audition, I commented that any one of us would be lucky to have a system like this in our home, much less in our car. I can’t think of much higher praise.

notabadname's picture

BMW and Bang & Olufsen not reviewed? In the 6 series for example, the numbers certainly sound impressive, with 16 speakers (seven tweeters, seven midrange drivers and two subwoofers), 1200 watts of power (including 500w for the two subs) and 5.1 surround sound with the necessary DSP for all those speakers. It seems odd to hit every luxury brand essentially above in your comparison except for BMW. You even review a A Sony System in the Ford Explorer. I've demoed the B&O in the 6 Series - while not an instrumented test, simply incredible sound stage and control of bass. And unlike any audio I've heard in a vehicle. Would be curious to see how it compares.

Spence's picture

For the other 99% of us, a review for say, autos $25,000 or less, be they sedans, SUVs, etc. would be welcome.

jnemesh's picture

You aren't going to get any company offering anything like these audio systems in a $25,000 car!

Spence's picture

True, but not all of us (and I guess I shall only speak for myself here), would not expect you to only have a good system in a luxury vehicle. Mind you I'd love to have any of the above vehicles, along with the fab audio systems, but just thought I would ask humbly SAV to have an article for the regular working stiffs such as myself to see what say Toyota, Honda and Nissan have, and compare those makers' systems.

jnemesh's picture

Well, the reality is that auto makers don't offer truly premium sound in anything BUT the luxury vehicles, as people shopping for $25000 cars don't pony up $4000-$5000 for a premium audio system, typically.

As for the sound quality of Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans? It would be like comparing Home Theater in a Box systems. They work, but don't expect anything exceptional.

Spence's picture

I was for instance quite happy to INSTALL a Pioneer system with better speakers, subwoofer, equalizer, etc. in my Camry, and as you mention the factory systems for mid-priced vehicles are lacking in providing one to get excited about. As I do about say 90% of my music listening in my SUV, having the that option of custom installation helps to at least partly bridge the quality gap.

Audiophiled's picture

If someone wanted to they could easily buy the exact same equipment from a supplier for dirt cheap, I did this years ago with some high end floor speakers that cost $5000 a piece, once I was able to get some parts numbers I was able to find the exact speaker components for two speakers for around $150, it was just a matter of building the boxes and tuning them, I was never able to get around to it though, life got in the way. The average consumer is too lazy to do this, but it can be done for cheap with a little ingenuity.

jnemesh's picture

You might be able to find the same speaker drivers and a good aftermarket deck and/or amp to power them, but you will never reproduce the results you get from these HIGHLY ENGINEERED systems that the automakers and stereo companies put together. The Bose system, for instance, is PRECISELY modeled for the exact interior dimensions and acoustical properties of the car it's installed in. They don't just slap a few speakers inside, amplify them and call it "good". They tune the system to exacting specifications for the EXACT environment they will be placed in.

Can you get decent results from your approach (and save tons of money)? Sure. Will it be as good as what a couple hundred engineers spent THOUSANDS of man-hours developing? Not in a million years.

tl;dr version? "You get what you pay for".

jnemesh's picture

I think I would prefer the Linn audio system in Aston Martin vehicles to any of the ones listed here.

funambulistic's picture

I think your question is quite valid, Spence. Yes, I have heard some of these systems and they are spectacular, but "lesser" manufacturers offer "premium" audio as well: Mazda and Nissan, Bose; Hyundai and Kia, Infinity; Toyota, JBL, VW, Dynaudio and Fender. It would make for a fun comparo. Sure, they won't stand up to the above tested systems, but what the heck...

NickMoore's picture

The Volvo XC90 does have a CD player with the B&W system. The loading slot is under the front center arm rest, and a little hard to see. I have had a very similar 1200-watt B&W system in the 2011 Jag XJ Supersport, it was (recently sold) indeed first rate. That one somehow made Sirius sound reasonably okay, though I cancelled that quickly.

There is another oop on the Meridian. We do own two of the Meridian stereos, one in my wife's 2014 Range Rover Sport, and another in my sports car. Having just come off owning three British cars concurrently, you can believe I get a lot of loaner Jags and Land Rovers with other levels of Meridian systems. The radio tuner FM reception is simply crap across the board. Something rather less awful, I suppose, if one does not pay up for the very highest optional system.

That said, the Meridian systems can be right up there with the best available, providing you feed it CD or equivalent. Note that Range Rovers do tend to have very, very good stereos as part of their DNA, regardless of audio brand. We have had three over the past 16 years. Just as Mercedes stereos tend to be mediocre relative to the specs on paper. Thought the Burmester transition might have cured that, I am grateful for your input there (though I don't have a pulse on the S-Class).

Now, I am not surprised your testing protocol with Automobile wouldn't catch an FM reception issue. Your objective tests had to use only the exact same software, obviously, and in any case you might have been located in a particularly strong signal area, or a uniformly weak one.

A final point, one unfortunately can never generalize on car audio systems quality, in my experience. Different car models within the same brand often sound wildly different, and similar spec systems from any single audio brand often sound wildly different in different make autos. Except for Bose, which never, ever sound quite right, in roughly the same way...

tecsk8r2002's picture

Why not compare other car's sound system? A lot of car makers are bringing in "high" end audio systems into sub $25000 cars now. Mazda makes the Mazda3 with bose audio? My Sonata has Dimension audio, whoever that is, and I would like to hear where it stacks between other cars. I would love to read a couple of articles where SAV compares audio systems from other car makers.

I would love to see SAV review aftermarket systems too but that might be asking for too much.

NickMoore's picture

I have also shopped a lot of smaller cars in the past year. The Bose system in the Mazda 3 is an unexpectedly decent one. The bigger bargain is the Infinity step-up stereo in the newer Kia Soul (which comes with lots of amusing pulsing LED lights), which is even cheaper. Both those cars also have really excellent ergonomics for their respective infotainment systems.

I haven't tried the latest ones, but I drive a 2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited with a step-up Infinity periodically, and that one sounds rather good, too.

Infinity, B&W, and B&O car stereos are all Harmon International these days, though by no means have the sound of them converged at this point.

I think the step-up 705-watt Bang & Olufsen system Audi uses in the A3/S3 might have ranked quite highly in this test. One of the best I have heard at any price, though Audi's connections and file type compatibility is still weird.

sysdawg's picture

Thanks for the great article. It would be nice to see a second round of tests on brands that didn't make the first round...Audi, BMW, Lexus, Tesla, etc. 20-25 years ago I think the premium Lexus/Nakamichi system in the LS400 was somewhat of a gold standard among OEM systems, so it would be interesting to see where Lexus stands now.

sysdawg's picture

...the Hyundai/Lexicon system in the Equus, or Genesis.

logic227's picture

I'm a bit confused to why they listened to the 23 speakers that comes optioned in a Range Rover and not the 24 speakers that comes optioned with a s class? Not fair, but still interesting reading this article.

brenro's picture

The Bespoke system employed by Rolls Royce missing from here is a glaring oversight.

Audiophiled's picture

Its hard to take this review seriously when the reviewer is using the gimmicky surround sound setting, the setting just creates the illusion of a sound stage, but in reality it adds nothing to the experience, all these systems should be reviewed without any gimmicky settings turned on, with a flat equalizer, to determine which system actually sounds the best. A break down of equipment used would be great too, some of these sound good initially but fall apart fast due to cheap quality of the components, Bang & Olufsen and Wilkins & Bowers get a lot of complaints with their speakers blowing out after a year or two.