If beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
the best sound system for your new car is whatever pleases your eardrums
And don't be tricked into thinking the
system that costs more is necessarily better than the standard installation.
The decision is not always easy. You may
not be the type who demands an ultra-premium system like a wine connoisseur
does the finest vintage. Nor do you want equipment so powerful it
rattles the fillings in your teeth.
But you also don't want to pay all that
money for a cool new car and realize a week later the sound stinks.
While the salesman extols the virtues of
the upgraded system -- for a mere $1,200 more -- your dad is argues,
"A radio is a radio."
It's a dilemma.
Don Lindich, an audio/video expert with 18 years of
experience, has a surprising answer.
"The regular person often feels intimidated about
wanting the basic system," he says. "Don't think because
they charge more, it's necessarily better. Premium sound systems
aren't always better than basic systems. A lot depends on personal
Lindich is author of the advice column Multimedia
Answers, appearing in newspapers around the country, and runs multimediaanswers.com.
Yet, when he bought his 2003 Infiniti G35, he picked the basic system
instead of taking the optional sound system made by Bose.
"I thought the basic system sounded better than
the Bose system," he says, "and I saved money, too."
His advice: Pick the system that sounds best to you.
Pick what you like
Here are some simple tips for finding the in-factory sound system
that is best suited to you.
Bring several of your favorite CDs from home and try
them out in the basic system of the vehicle you intend to buy. Try
them in the upgrades, too.
"If you think the upgrade sounds better and the
price is affordable, get it," says Lindich. "Otherwise
get the basic. But buy what your ear likes. This isn't brain surgery."
Distortion is the key
Lindich also advises the regular buyer not to get caught up in most
of the specifications of a system except for the amplifier "distortion"
level. Distortion is the harsh breakup of the sound as the volume
is increased. If you hear the sound warping at the normal volume
level you listen to, try a different system. The lower the distortion
figure, the better. Outstanding sound systems produce as little
as .1 percent distortion and anything less than 1 per cent is generally
acceptable. If you see a figure higher than that, forget it. Unfortunately,
it's sometimes difficult to get distortion ratings on manufacturer-installed
One inexpensive way to improve the sound quality of
the in-factory system is to replace the speakers with better ones.
Sometimes you can get this done for as little as $100.
Lindich recommends American brands such as Boston
Acoustics, Polk Audio, JBL and Infinity as replacements. "American
companies make the finest speakers in the world," he says.
That's a big savings over getting a premium sound
system, often available only in vehicle models or packages costing
For instance, the Acura RSX sports a six-speaker radio/CD
as basic. To get the Bose surround-sound eight-speaker system with
radio/CD/cassette and satellite radio, you have to buy models that
cost $5,000 to $10,000 more.
The Ford Expedition's basic four-speaker radio/CD/cassette
player upgrades to a seven-speaker surround-sound system, but only
if you pay $2,500 for a package upgrade.
Cadillac offers a seven or eight-speaker radio/CD/cassette
system as standard in most models. The Bose eight-speaker system
Now, before you go shopping, let's define some of
those confusing technical buzzwords about sound systems:
Surround sound places speakers so that the listener is enveloped
in sound. Usually, there are at least five speakers, two at the
front, two on the sides and a subwoofer, which plays low bass, in
There are two types of surround sound:
Matrix: This system
picks up music recorded on two tracks, breaks up the sounds and
distributes them to the five or more speakers. The Cadillac XLR
and Volvo (with its Dolby Pro Logic) offer this sound system feature.
Discrete: These are
capable of picking up five separately recorded soundtracks and
sending them to different speakers. Dolby Digital equipment, found
in movie theaters, is discrete surround sound. It also handles
two-track recordings the way a matrix system does. Currently,
no in-factory auto sound system has this feature, but it's coming
in the near future. The 2004 Acura TL is the first car to sport
the Pansonic's new ELS surround system which provides six independent
and discrete channels of sound.
Digital Signal Processing
DSP is a sound manipulating system that gives an environmental
background effect. Say you're listening to a football game. DSP
adds an acoustic echo to give the feeling that you're sitting
in a stadium. The premium in-factory systems in the 2003 Ford
Explorers and Expeditions offer DSP.
A compact disc recorded with MP3s can hold at least 10 times the
material recorded on a normal CD. MP3s can only be played on sound
systems designed to play the compressed files. Cars that come with
MP3 systems as standard equipment include the Pontiac Grand Am,
Ford Ranger Edge, Honda Element EX, Ford Focus SE, Mazdaspeed Protégé,
and the Bentley Continental R. The feature is optional in Mazda
MPV LS, Chevrolet Cavalier LS, Hyundai Elantra GLS, Ford Mustang
and Pontiac Montana.
-- Updated: Oct. 28, 2004