Premium Car Radios-High End or Hokum
Commentary
Ross Wagner
23 October 2002

The star of the June Home Entertainment Show in New York City was not a speaker system. Nor was it an amplifier, a pre-amp, CD player or anything to do with a home theater.

Here's a clue. It was large, and almost as heavy as the Wisdom/Rowland 'Million Dollar System' heard at the CES show last January. Like the speakers in that system, it boasted an impeccable silver finish. Unlike that system, it had four performance tires, and a twelve cylinder, 450 horsepower engine under the hood. I am, of course, speaking of the bran'-spankin' new Aston Martin Vanquish which gleamed under the halogen spotlights in the huge Linn display suite.

What in the world is this vehicle, or any vehicle for that matter, doing at a home entertainment show?

Well, I'll tell you what, and it may not be good news.

High-end, or what is supposed to be high-end audio, has infiltrated itself into automobiles.

Try to buy any car with a sticker over, say, $23,000 from a dealer's lot without a 'premium' radio stuffed into the dash. It's hard to do. The Ford Escape I bought a few years ago sported a 'premium' radio. Likewise the Infiniti G-35 I purchased a few months ago. Spent $500 extra on the former; $900 on the latter.

My reward for shelling out the extra bucks…speaker drivers everywhere, several hundred watts of power (rated God-only-knows how), and a peaky upper mid-range that could turn Lot's wife into salt without the need for her to turn her head. One more outrage…Ford deleted the cassette player from its 'premium' radio. So good-bye to your existing tape collection and books on tape. Oh well. Want to brush up your Farci on those long commutes to work? Fuhgeddaboutit. And if you want to experience Tolstoy, better get the book out of the library.

The bass on these units (it isn't low bass: rather it is a pervasive mid-bass thump) is, to put it bluntly, awful. How best to describe it? A sensation somewhere between an orgasm and the kind of pelvic cramps one experiences after drinking tap water in the Mexican countryside.

I have found no way to make these units listenable, except to turn down both the treble and bass tone controls to minimum, and put a lid on the gain.

So far I have been talking about the nameless 'premium' sound system found in the Ford and the Bose system infecting the Infiniti. And speaking of Infiniti, the name adorns many of the extra-cost systems in dealers' showrooms as well as Clarion and…well, you know the names. Right?

But the trend introduced by Lexus, the folks who let you pay $1000 extra for a Nakamichi upgrade when they introduced the LS400 in 1990, is expanding. Lexus is still at it, but today's high-end name is Mark Levinson. Here is an otherwise respectable purveyor of true high-end audio electronics lending their name to a high-priced automobile audio system. To be fair, the Madrigal effort is somewhat more listenable than the Ford or Infinity effort due, in part, to a mid-range level control. Unfortunately, the emphasis is still on a hot top and an ill-defined mid-bass. Again, no real low-end response.

Besides offering doubtful value, I believe these systems will have a long lasting and harmful effect on true high-end audio. I fear the standards of taste in music reproduction are being corrupted by the association of these sounds with the premium names of the high-end industry. How are the purveyors of quality sound in audio salons going to explain to owners of 'premium' automobile audio systems that they should pay big bucks for home systems that sound nothing like what these folks have been listening to in their cars. Hmmm, they will ponder, why does this Mark Levinson home system sound so different from the Mark Levinson system in my car? Gosh, Mr. High-end Salesman, why aren't you selling me something that sounds like the pricey sound system in my Lexus?

Its time to get back to the Aston Martin and Linn. Remember? That's where we came in? Anyhow, we need to keep in mind that the Linn system is an after-market effort. The Linn folks were presented a completed car with the challenge of providing a one-off upgraded sound system without mucking up the hand finished leather and rare wood interior of this world-class automobile. Linn decided to install four small three-driver pods, one in each of the four doors. Each pod includes a tweeter, a mid-range and another driver to round things out. So twelve drivers in all. Guess how many amps. You're right…twelve. A sub-woofer and its dedicated amp complete the system.

Pretty good sound, I would say, for an automobile, but still with the emphasis on a punchy presentation. The massiveness and rigidity of the vehicle itself helps to keep the sound under control. Linn need feel little embarrassment for its effort.

This article has been pretty much of a rant so far, and you might ask, "Well, Wagner, how would you go about getting good sound into a car?

Funny you should ask, because I addressed just that issue forty, yep, forty years ago.

I was much too young, and could ill-afford the 220SE Mercedes coupe at the time. And space will not allow how I justified it, nor will I bore you with the intricate history of my romance with that oh-so-gorgeous machine. Let's move on to the sound system.

At the time there were no CD's, not even cassette decks in cars. In fact, FM was rare in American cars. But the Mercedes had an FM tuner which could receive the entire FM frequency band being broadcast in the US. However, the tiny single speaker mounted in the center of the dash, just would not do.

So with my heart in my mouth, I summoned the courage to ask my local dealer to cut through the heavy steel of the rear deck and drop a small KLH speaker, walnut cabinet and all, into the space. The sound was directed upward towards the slant of the rear window, thence to the occupants of the car. Lest you wonder, I should remind you that mono was the order of the day in broadcast FM, so one speaker seemed sufficient to the task.

The sixties were troubled years in many ways, but in at least one respect they were to be cherished. The sixties was the golden age of broadcast classical music in the New York area. We had at least three stations then; barely one and a half now. The Becker Mexico radio had sufficient power to drive the KLH. I recall the sweetest sound emanating from that little system. Sure, the highs were rolled off. I doubt the bass went much below 100. But the six octaves between those points was music, deeply involving and richly satisfying. And that's what sound systems, in cars or otherwise, should do…get the mid-range right…then, and only then, deliver the best high frequency response and as much clean bass as you can afford.

I would happily exchange the fancy premium car systems I now own for that fine Becker Mexico/KLH sound of old. And while I'm wishing for the good old days, perhaps WNCN, 104.3 on the FM dial, will broadcast classical music again.

Editors note: I spent some dozen years associated with the Car Audio Nationals and then the International Auto Sound Challenge Association, as a sound quality judge form the mid 1980's through the late 1990's. I judges hundreds of events and many hundreds more automobiles fitted with aftermarket systems installed by reputable retailers with custom installers and install bays at their place of business. Delete the bloody "Premium" system when possible - and yes, I know that can be difficult. Take the money you save to a reputable 12-volt audio retailer (do your homework - it is not that difficult to check up on a dealers reputation in the community) and see what good aftermarket sound can do for you. The installations today look as good or better than the factory system and sound infinitely better than ANY factory system. You will be surprised what a joy you will find for your efforts!

Greg Weaver